February, 2009, Drama

Thanks to the docudrama approach director Gus Van Zant employs in this intense examination of the life and death of Harvey Milk, audiences get a cinematic perfecta; an exciting, remarkably effective recreation of key events in the gay-rights movement that’s greatly enhanced by a brilliant performance from Sean Penn in the leading role. Nominated for 8 Oscars, (for best picture, director, original script, film editing, art direction, musical score, costume design, actor and actor in a supporting role) this passionate, tragic yet life-affirming film manages to capture the frenzy of a precise moment in America’s history with an unabashed and unapologetic salute to the inherent dignity of homosexuals and their rights to full participation in our society. Filled with excellent performances from its large cast and the director’s genius for concentrating on seemingly unimportant details which subsequently resonate with significance, Milk not only represents Van Zant’s finest work; it also stands as one of the best films of this rapidly aging decade. Despite its “R” rating, here’s a movie of special significance for teenagers struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality as well as those simply tempted to adopt society’s lingering fear of and hostility towards gays.

The historical facts are brutally straightforward; in 1978, following the defeat of a state-wide anti-gay referendum, Dan White, (Josh Brolin) an elected San Francisco supervisor who had resigned his post, entered City Hall through an open ground floor window, bypassed security and shot to death mayor George Moscone and White’s fellow supervisor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Convicted on two counts of manslaughter, White served 5 years in a California penitentiary before being released. Two years thereafter, he committed suicide. Thanks to Van Zant’s stunning reconstruction of the preceding decade, we now have a better appreciation of what led to White’s homicidal rampage.

Working from a brilliantly written script by Dustin Lance Black, Van Zant picks up Milk’s life story in 1970 when Milk, then employed by an insurance company in New York City, met and fell in love with Scott Smith, (James Franco) an openly gay and free-spirited younger man. Smith convinced Milk to drop of out of the latter’s conventional lifestyle and move to San Francisco, where the two of them opened a small camera shop in the Castro district, home to the city’s burgeoning gay community. Battling then prevalent restrictions on the rights of homosexuals in employment, housing and business opportunities with the fervor of accomplished political pros, Milk and Scott gradually convinced other members of the gay community to work together for political change, forging along the way a number of important alliances with other marginalized segments of the city’s population. After unsuccessfully running once as a state representative and 4 times for a seat as a city supervisor, (the equivalent of a city council position in most communities) Milk finally won election following a redistricting which realigned the city’s voters. That same election also brought White into office; a former policeman and fireman, White’s religious/political fundamentalism placed these two diametrically opposed individuals in positions which required co-operation where none was ideologically possible, setting the stage for the tragic outcome which followed.

While these events were playing out in the “city by the bay”, religious fundamentalists were initiating anti-gay initiatives across the country, employing singer Anita Bryant in successful “crusades” against antidiscrimination laws in Dade County Florida and cities in South Dakota and Oregon. When that momentum expressed itself in a California referendum to prohibit homosexuals from holding positions as teachers in the state’s public schools, Milk led a successful campaign which defeated the measure. As his influence and power increased, Milk clashed openly with White on a number of issues facing San Franciscans and White felt that Milk was intentionally humiliating him in these conflicts. Under great stress, White emotionally resigned from his position as supervisor, but quickly reversed course and asked the mayor to reappoint him. Learning from a reporter that Moscone had no intention of doing so, White killed the mayor, then walked to Milk’s office and murdered him as well.

The film traces Milk’s metamorphosis from innocuous businessman to political champion by examining his ability to convince others to become involved in his efforts to create the same rights for the gays which the rest of us take for granted. With the help of a supporting cast led by Brolin and Franco, (which includes a half-dozen deftly-sketched portraits of Milk’s political inner circle) Van Zant adds depth, personality and perspective to the gay rights struggle, emphasizing Milk’s insistence that our constitution’s dedication to equality for everyone does not apply only to those of heterosexual orientation, (an issue which currently rages in the national debate over the legality of gay marriage.) 

Milk ardently believed that self-acceptance, openly and freely expressed, provided the only means by which homosexuals could convince society at large that gays were entitled to a level playing field. That often brought him into conflict with those who were reluctant to “come out”. In leading by example, Milk thus not only offended many of his opponents, but crucial members of the gay community as well and these tensions, which the movie captures so vividly, provide an opportunity for “straight” Americans to find in the film’s two hours a painful glimpse into the lives of those not often consideration as qualifying for inclusion in the designation “all God’s children”.

Van Zant and Penn don’t shy away from presenting Milk, warts and all; there were a succession of lovers, a willingness to use his political power to steamroll the opposition and a tendency to place his ambitions ahead of his personal relationships. But his compassion, vibrant enthusiasm and boundless energy make him hard to resist.  Best of all, the director presents the entire gay community in all its extravagant glory; from bushy-haired street prostitutes, to proudly effeminate “queens” to successful but closeted members of the gay community panicked at the possibility of being “outed”, Van Zant delivers a rainbow of personalities as vital and appealing as anyone could hope for, presenting characters whose sexual appetites are natural not deviant - - perhaps the single most significant accomplishment of this remarkable movie.

Mixing archival newsreel footage with clever reconstruction of actual events, Milk achieves the nearly impossible; the recapitulation of a city’s chaotic journey to a wider vision of itself. It’s hard to see how Van Zant could have accomplished this feat without Penn’s mesmerizing performance; with facial expressions, flamboyant gestures and an often fey tone of voice, the actor brings Milk to life, not by impersonating him, but by interpreting what the man and the movement he so profoundly identified with mean to the rest of us. Whether Penn’s artistry actually an Oscar later this month or not, he gives a performance that richly deserves one.

The ingredients of Milk comprise a seamless whole; from dialogue to costumes to the carefully selected pop tunes which provide a sense of time and mood, this movie provides what all great movies do; a glimpse into (and taste of) a world so fully realized we’re forced to recognize it as our own.

The verdict? A fully accomplished addition to the pantheon of great films.



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