Milk, Dir. Gus Van Sant (2008)

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk Photo:Splash News/Guardian

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk Photo:Splash News/Guardian

I had very high expectations coming into this movie, Sean Penn teamed with Gus Van Sant portraying the life of an inspirational gay icon sounded like a winning recipe. And it most definitely met those expectations.

Milk is a powerful achievement to rank alongside other mainstream gay films like Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain or political films like Malcolm X. And  it will surely put Van Sant back on the map, marking his best film since Good Will Hunting.

Penn gives an astoundingly driven performance, transforming himself to play Harvey Milk (and sometimes having to wear a very bad wig to do it). A man who started out a dissatisfied in insurance and quickly proved he could do more. From opening a gay-friendly camera shop in the Castro in California, to putting homophobic shops out of business and eventually running for office to become the first openly gay  senator.

His struggle to gain recognition is set into context with documentary footage which makes the period immediate . We see just how ridiculously hyperbolic  the homophobic rhetoric of Milk’s main antagonist Anita Bryant really was(describing homosexuality as ‘evil’ with awful earnestness).

A debate about proposition 6; whether homosexuals should be allowed to teach,  between Milk and his bigoted rival Senator Briggs also  shows how Milk uses humour as a weapon: “If it’s true that teachers really had such an influence on their pupils, there would be a lot more nuns walking around.”

His other main rival in the film Dan White, is played with depth by Josh Brolin. We see his frustration, his sense of failure and his jealousy of Milk’s position that leads him to assassinate him. And so deftly avoiding a characterisation which could’ve been cardboard cut-out villainy.

The structure also shows us how determined  Milk was to bring hope, by interweaving scenes of him recording his message to be played in the event of his death throughout the film;  and by flagging up his assignation from the beginning archival footage. We see how dangerous  what  Milk was doing was and also how aware he was of these risks.

Dustin Lance Black’s script is exceptionally good and through Penn’s performance really humanises Milk. We see the struggle he has in maintaining his campaign in the face of successive defeats, and the blame he pours on himself when his commitment to his political work drives one of his lovers (a charismatic Diego Luna) to commit suicide. Also  showing in this relationship his fatal addiction to needy and volatile men.  Although some may criticize the film for not showing enough of Milk’s notoriously prolific sexual life, I would argue that the film would get too bogged down if it did so and could end up alienating many in the audience.

The film shows  that as much as Milk was an inspirational figure (comparable to Obama in his gift at oratory) this wasn’t just about Milk this was, as Milk himself says, about “a movement” that would carry on after his death.  The superb supporting cast (Emile Hirsch, James Franco who really is the new James Dean,  and  Alison Pill all play their roles with a sense of genuine commitment) who work to spread his message show this.  Testament to the power Milk has in uniting people  is seen a  moving scene in which thousands of marchers immediately after his  death are seen marching,  filling the screen with the  glow of their candles.

A moving and beautiful film documenting a man who deserves to be known by everyone and hopefully will be because of this film. Especially in these retrogressive times when measures like proposition 8 can be astonishingly sanctioned. And if Penn doesn’t get an Oscar for this performance there is no justice in the world.

 

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