Milk film review

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Written by Dustin Lance Black

Starring Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco and Alison Pill

The recent DVD release in Australia of the film Milk makes it important to reflect on the significance of this film.  My review below originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News earlier this year – on January 29, 2009

Milk, the biopic about the life and death of gay Jewish San Francisco city councilman (“supervisor”) Harvey Milk, is both highly conventional and a fascinating example of how mainstream gay and lesbian life has now become in American culture.  It is also one of “the” films of the year, and destined to join Brokeback Mountain as the “gay” film which garners a wide general audience.  Directed by gay film-maker Gus Van Sant (To Die For, Elephant, My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting), Milk stars actor Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in a moving and convincing performance which will certainly achieve his fifth Academy Award nomination and just possibly claim his second win (note:  my prediction on this was correct:  Penn did win).  How could this tightly muscled actor turn himself into the voluble, emotional, thin, homosexual and Jewish Milk?  He does so, brilliantly, and thus anchors the film, giving the rest of the cast a powerful presence to play against.  The result lifts Milk from straightforward predictability to an often moving and riveting screen experience.

Milk tells the story of a particular time in San Francisco history – the early 1970s leading up to Milk’s death, when he was deliberately murdered along with Mayor George Moscone by fellow supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978.  For those of us living in San Francisco then – and I was one, a resident in the Mission District adjacent to the “Castro” where most of this film’s action takes place – this was a tragic time, and dare I say, a highly creepy one as well.  Just one week before Milk and Moscone were killed, the “Jonestown massacre” took place:  the mass suicide/murder in Guyana of more than 900 former San Francisco residents from the city’s “People’s Temple”.  This was a time when any strange thing could happen, and in fact much did.

One of the great achievements of Van Sant in Milk is in capturing this tumultuous moment in American social history.  Aside from a strong cast, he is ably assisted by cinematographer Harris Savides who helped to make another “historical” San Francisco film, the murder-thriller Zodiac (2007), so convincing.  I never met Harvey Milk, but I did meet a number of the minor characters who appear in the film and I well remember the odd feeling of that city in the late 1970s:  already post-hippie, post flower-child (trends die quickly), with political power rapidly moving from “old” money to the community-based activists like Milk and his liberal Jewish colleague Carol Ruth Silver (who I briefly worked with, and who appears in the film as another character; her character also appears, played by a different actress).

Milk makes extensive use of newsreel footage of that time, including that of a shaken San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein (later mayor of the city, and currently one of California’s two Jewish senators) announcing the deaths of Moscone and Milk.  This scene appears early in the film, so there is no doubt how it will end; the fun (if you can call it that, and it often is) is to see how Harvey Milk’s life unfolds.

Milk’s early life was peculiarly American mid-twentieth century:  the geeky, big-eared, second generation son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants was born in 1930 in Woodmere, Long Island, New York (as “middle Jewish” suburban as you could get), went to university and then served in the navy during the Korean War.  The film opens as he is living in New York, still hiding his homosexuality, but picking up younger men in the subway.  He moves to San Francisco and becomes fully “out”, opening a camera shop, and slowly turning from a Goldwater Republican to an ardent progressive Democrat.  Milk had a number of romantic relationships, and was notoriously bad at them, frequently choosing emotionally needy partners.  The film includes two of them:  Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack Lira (Diego Lira).  The film’s willingness to acknowledge Milk’s messy personal life is admirable.  There is a delicate balancing act going on here:  San Francisco gay life was (in those pre-AIDS days) full of wild sex and multiple partners, but Milk is portrayed as a serial monogamist.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but it does make the film that much more palatable for the “straight” audience.  Be warned, however:  this is not a film for those who are uncomfortable watching men being affectionate with each other on screen.

The real core of the film charts Harvey Milk’s growing political success – the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco, and his political battles, notably his successful opposition to “Proposition 6”, a California citizens initiative that would have prevented homosexual teachers from working in schools in that state.  The most interesting relationship in the film, one which is clouded with ambiguity, is Milk’s on-again, off-again attempts to work with Dan White, a highly conservative former policeman and fireman who was a City Supervisor from another district – and who ultimately killed him.  Van Sant’s interpretation suggests a potential (but unrealised) closeness between the two men which I am not certain actually existed.  But it is these ambiguities that make a good film.  (White served only a short prison sentence for the murders, which sparked riots in the city.  He committed suicide a couple of years after being released from jail.)

This is not the first time the story of Harvey Milk has been told:  in 1982 Randy Shilts published his book The Mayor of Castro Street and in 1984 Robert Epstein directed the Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (declaration of interest:  Epstein is my second cousin), which used much of the same archival footage – and is credited in Van Sant’s film.

“My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you”, Harvey Milk states a number of times in film, each time to widely different audiences, gay or straight.  For Milk, who was by then turning into a consummate politician, the meanings could be very different, depending on who he was talking with.  Gus Van Sant is an able enough film-maker to know simply when to let his main character talk, actively recruiting us into Milk’s messy but fascinating life.

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