Film

'Milk's Legacy More Timely Now Than Ever


Milk

Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Sean Penn, Jamesw Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Alison Pill, Diego Luna
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Focus Features
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2009-01-16 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-11-26 (Limited release)
Website

Harvey Milk was more than a politician. He was more than a grass roots illustration of San Francisco's struggling gay rights movement and underrepresented population. He was much more than a cultural icon, much more than a martyred victim of a senseless and still slightly unbelievable crime. What Harvey Milk represents is truly present in Gus Van Sant's stellar telling of the last years of his life. While Milk never excuses the man's sexuality, or makes it the sole reason for his rise and untimely fall, it does argue that his outrageous outsider status gave him a unique perspective on the role of the government and its people in a democracy. It's a lesson we could all re-learn today.

As a closeted middle aged man in Manhattan, Harvey Milk is desperate for something better. After meeting up with future companion Scott Smith, the decision is made - they will both travel to San Francisco, where the Castro District is buzzing with growing gay pride. While still the subject of horrible homophobia, Milk's corner camera store becomes a powerbase for a new kind of revolution - one surrounding human rights and their proper preservation. After running for elected office several times - and losing - Milk finally benefits from some redrawn districts. He is soon the first openly gay politician holding significant office in the United States. Unfortunately, his orientation and lack of political savvy put him in direct conflict with cowardly conservative Dan White. It's a clash that will end in tragedy.

So much about Milk speaks to our current Prop 8 poisoned society that it should be studied by anyone wondering where hate and bigotry get their clear eyed cravenness. Mirroring the main character's rise from activist to Establishment, director Gus Van Sant wisely juxtaposes archival footage of former Miss America and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant as part of the perspective. Militant in her narrow-minded opposition to equal rights, she's Sarah Palin sent back in a time machine, a smiley faced whack job that preaches Christian charity while targeting her baseless Bible at an entire underclass. Her moral majority preaching, position as part of what will eventually be the religious right rejuvenation of the Republican Party, is frightening, and reminds us that Milk the man truly laid his life on the line for the cause.

Van Sant also illustrates the normalcy surrounding the crazed Castro, avoiding much of the scandal and sex games (bathhouses and discos are mentioned, but not visited) to show that Milk managed to attract thoughtful, appreciative people into his fold. James Franco is excellent as Smith, the true love of Harvey's hectic life (and the one sacrifice necessary for the man to push forward). There is such warmth in the performance that the same sex scenes of romance become organic, not off-putting. Emile Hirsch also puts on the mince as a very fey and very frank escort who ends up as one of Milk's main supporters. The rampant stereotyping in the film is easily forgiven, since Van Sant is merely recognizing kinds, not arguing that they were the only elements of San Francisco's scene.

It's no surprise, however, that the two strongest turns come from our two main players. Sean Penn disappears so completely into the role of Harvey Milk that we occasionally have to shock ourselves into remembering that we are not watching a documentary. There is no mannerism in the performance, no obvious attempts at acting. Instead, with a lilt in his voice and a twinkle in his tired eyes, he brings the myth maverick back down to Earth, infusing him with a spirit that's infectious and endearing. We root for this man just as much as the people who elected him to office, and when the unfortunate end comes, we feel the pain just as much as they do.

But it's Josh Brolin who has the much harder role as family man turned murderer Dan White. While clearly unhinged about some element of his life, Van Sant does a wonderful job of establishing motive outside the obvious homophobic approach. White is seen as a limited success, someone shuttled aside rather conveniently to make room for Milk's rapid ascension. His projects are put off, and when he tries to rally support to stop certain policies, he often ends up on the short end of the stance. When California votes to repeal certain protections for homosexuals (yes, Prop 8 is nothing new in the state's history), White is on the losing side of the outcome, and this puts him on a collision course with fate. Brolin shows us the slow burn and the phony façade. We know he will crack, and we're afraid of how calm he'll be when he finally does.

In Van Sant's capable hands, history is reflected alongside fiction, moments of made-up interpersonal tensions underscoring the rising anger in the gay community. If there is a weak link among the main characters, it's the second half arrival of Diego Luna as Jack Lira, a thickly accented Spaniard that becomes obsessed with Milk. Hanging onto his lover like a wounded whelp and complaining about unimportant things like dinner times and a "lack of fun", he's the fifth wheel amongst a group of concerned, caring activists. But thanks to the brilliance in Penn's performance, and the way in which Van Sant systematically deconstructs the time, the place and the positions, Milk remains masterful. It's the kind of smart, sensitive biography that does the subject and his spirit proud.

And yet the real question remains - why, in 2008, is the issue of gay rights seemingly back at square one? Why, in a nation that apparently embraces multiculturalism and ethnic diversity so openly and easily, are we still using sexuality and orientation as a means of making distinctions between protected classes? Milk argues that the God squad are the cause of all the clamor, and he was/is right. But apparently time was all the Jesus gang needed to turn the clock back to the dismal dark ages. Thirty years later, Harvey Milk remains a monumental political figure. That society has since rejected his rational call to arms speaks as much for his import as the lack of such leadership now.

9

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.