“We gotta give em hope”
I have to admit that I forgot Gus Van Sant knew how to make films with a linear storyline. The man is a visionary with My Own Private Idaho standing as one of my personal favorites and, a little more recently, Elephant being a testament to craft succeeding beyond a need for dialogue. But of course, the film everyone loves is that Damon/Affleck darling Good Will Hunting, and I do too. Mix them all together, add some non-fiction, and you’ll come close to Milk, the real life tale of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office. Here is a man that stood up for civil rights; stood up for humanity itself. A mountain of a man inside of a slight frame and genial disposition, Milk never forgot his roots or put himself ahead of the movement. The “Mayor of Castro Street” didn’t fight for issues—he fought for lives. It’s a story people need to hear; a story, not about gay rights, but about what it means to be alive, to live and breathe freely, without fear of always looking behind you. It’s about being accepted for you.
Van Sant is still not one to do things the easy way, even when his material deals with a set time period such as the final eight or nine years of someone’s life. Instead he allows our hero to be the narrator, orating a goodbye letter via cassette tape just in case one of the multiple death threats he receives happens to come true. Milk sits at his kitchen table remembering the good times and the bad, the fights won and lost, on his journey that changed history as we know it. This man single-handedly stood against the system for the gay community to finally shed their insecurities, to believe that someone was on their side. A New Yorker stuck in a dead-end job, hiding his real identity to keep work while cruising the streets and subways for sexual encounters, wakes up on his fortieth birthday to move cross-country and start it all over; this time making his life one of meaning and hopefully something to be proud of. That prophetic night in bed, with his new love and muse Scott, began a revolution that no one saw coming—not America, not the gay community of San Francisco, and definitely not Milk himself. Modest, friendly, and always willing to give his heart to those around him, there truly wasn’t anyone else quite like him.
I always say that the best bio-pics are those that deal with a specific portion of the topical person’s life. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black does this in spades. It all begins in a NYC subway, the day before he goes over the hill, continuing on into San Francisco—Milk now shrouded in long hair and beard—from a guy trying to start a camera business on a not so welcoming street to a man known across the country, inspiring lives and also saving them. All we need of his past is shown with Sean Penn’s Oscar-worthy performance and the transformation he takes as the story trucks along. You see the nervousness and fear to be himself in that subway tunnel and then also the uninhibited fervor for life as he and Scott, (a more nuanced than usual turn from James Franco), make-out on the ledge of their newly rented storefront. He arrived unwelcomed and threatened by business owners he would soon turn to his side with the amount of money thrown their way by the migrating community of homosexuals moving into the neighborhood. The unofficial leader of these young men and women, Milk breaks barriers right from the start, helping in a boycott of Coors beer and giving gays some much deserved respect. A self-proclaimed businessman, a Republican as stated by Scott, fights for the customer to receive a quality product. That mentality just continues to blossom into the political fight for rights and freedom, using that same formula to give homosexuals, the customers, a product worth their trouble, America.
Milk truly fires on all cylinders. The story is dynamite, one that I’m ashamed to admit I knew very little about … besides a cursory knowledge of who Milk was and an off-handed idea of “the Twinkie defense” without actually knowing any details of it. I’ve heard a lot about the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, and after checking out this film, I really want to see it to get more of the facts and see the actual people involved, moreso than the quick photos shown before the ending credits here. And the acting cannot be faulted at all … well maybe it can where Diego Luna is concerned, however, his role is meant to be over-the-top and not well liked, so in fact he might have done it perfectly. I’ve already mentioned Sean Penn, embodying this man completely, who will most definitely get a nomination, and, a nostalgic bid to give Mickey Rourke gold withstanding, probably a victory. The thing I love about Penn is that no matter how big he is in his celebrity or how recognizable his face is, when he portrays a role, it is always just the character on screen.
A large cast of faces you know and love, mixed with some up-and-comers that may trigger a memory of seeing them before, fill out the film nicely. Guys like Joseph Cross and Denis O’Hare add some authenticity and Alison Pill holds her own as really the only front and center female role. Besides Franco, though, two more men demand special mention, and they are Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin. Hirsch shines as Cleve Jones, a charismatic kid from Phoenix that, like the others around Harvey, takes to the political activism and begins to enjoy fighting for change. And then there is Brolin, continuing again in his career renaissance as the troubled Supervisor Dan White. Battling his own demons and his own identity in a community that expects certain things from him, White’s story is just as heartbreaking as Milk’s, even if he is the cause of everything tragic that occurs. It is a subtle performance that shines bright as a result.
But it isn’t all about the people, it is also very much about Van Sant’s unique visual eye. He utilizes many tricks from his repertoire: the final walk by Brolin in City Hall calling to memory Elephant’s long takes of character movement and the title cards for Milk’s campaign bearing a resemblance to Idaho’s similarly colored locale headings. However, it is the precise handling of the subject matter that shines. From the cut scenes of archival footage, real newsreels and interviews with people such as Anita Bryant, to the graphic stylings of voter punches falling through the air, to a magnificent shot mirrored off of the side of a whistle—beautiful to behold and meaningful due to the reason they were assembled for that scene to begin with—it’s all memorable. Even his use of static close-ups help tell the emotive workings of all that is going on. Whether it a moving phone call from Paul in Minnesota or an exchange with Scott during a sunrise at the end, Van Sant is at the top of his game and Milk will definitely stand as one of his finest works.
Milk 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
 Emile Hirsch (left), Kelvin Yu (center left), Sean Penn (center right) and Alison Pill (right) star as real-life gay rights activists Cleve Jones, Michael Wong, Harvey Milk and Anne Kronenberg respectively in director Gus Van Sant’s MILK, a Focus Features release. Photo: Danny Nicoletta
 Josh Brolin stars as real-life San Francisco city supervisor Dan White in director Gus Van Sant’s MILK, a Focus Features release. Photo: Phil Bray