Gus Van Sant
Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber

Joanne Ross

February 17, 2009


Given his macho, straight-faced, tough guy persona, Sean Penn would seem an unusual choice to play gay former San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the self-proclaimed, “Mayor of Castro Street”. It turns out to be the best choice for the film, Milk, director Guy Van Zant’s loving tribute to the life and achievements of Milk, the first openly gay man to hold a major political office.

Living in 2009, it’s hard to remember how dangerous things once were for gays and lesbians. Van Zant establishes the film’s tone from the start, creating a palpable atmosphere of those times using archival footage and music. We witness the systematic persecution of gay men routinely rounded up and arrested in bars across the country. Into this dismal state of affairs in San Francisco (indeed, the entire nation) comes former New Yorker Harvey Milk. He begins life in the Castro running a camera shop, but quickly marshals his energies into political activism. 

The gregarious and poltically savvy Milk rises to prominence in San Francisco as the frontline activist for gay rights, a powerful man with an innate talent for networking and organizing grass roots campaigns. In time, he unites his supporters into a political juggernaut that sweeps him into office during Mayor George Moscone’s administration.  Unfortunately, his life, and his successes, was cut short by fellow Supervisor Dan White.

The conservative Catholic White resents Milk who he feels represents the encroachment of social deviants and perverts, people that White staunchly believes will corrupt family values and overturn the traditional nuclear family unit. The tensions between the two finally explodes on November 27, 1978 the day White guns down Milk and Mayor Moscone

Van Zant achieves an operatic tone in his film which is consistent with the real-life drama unfolding in San Francisco’s social and political landscape. Conflict abounds -- socially (e.g., the Straights vs. the Gays, or “deviants”, as the homophobes love to proclaim); politically (Milk's activism for gay rights); and personally (White’s animosity toward Milk).  In the bitter rivalry that marked their relationship, it can be said that the political became the personal, instead of the other way around.

The Director doesn’t stint on humor. He captures the comical aspects of Milk’s debates with Senator Briggs who advocates his unshakeable conviction that being gay equates with pedophilia, child abuse and various20other perversions. Listening to it now, it’s hysterically funny. Back then, it must have been horrifying.

In Milk we have some of the strongest performances of 2008. In the role of Harvey’s uber-sensitive lover Jack, Diego Luna captures the qualities of neediness and desperation that eventually drive the poor man to commit suicide.  Josh Brolin’s incisive turn as Dan White is a stand-out performance. With each role, Brolin continues to impress -- he is evolving into a formidable talent. Playing George W. Bush in Oliver Stones bio-pic, W., Brolin excelled at embodying the President so effectively without relying on impersonation. His Bush is pure flesh and blood, not a caricature. He brings that same morphing ability in to his portrait of Dan White.  And let us not forget the great Sean Penn who brings his signature intensity and a boyish charm to his spot-on portrayal of the iconic Milk. 

Milk isn’t flawless.  Some coverage of the less flattering sides of Harvey Milk would have provided a more balanced portrait of the man. We get the tireless cha mpion, but he was also a human being. I’m sure the halo placed around his head by Van Zant and Milk’s supporters was a bit tarnished more than blinding white.*-JR


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