directed by Gus Van Sant

starring Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Josh Brolin

Focus Features

According to Director Gus van Sant, Harvey Milk (Penn) woke up one morning and invented Gay Rights. That’s the impression you get after viewing this otherwise impressive biopic of America’s First Openly Gay Elected Official (AFOGEO). We meet Harvey as he turns 40 and picks up a new boyfriend, Scott Smith (Franco), in the subway. At loose ends, they both head to San Francisco and open a camera shop in the transitional Castro district. While a bit freer than most other places, the police raid the bars when they have a slow night and two guys making out on the street is still a bit beyond the community standards. Milk drifts into politics and collects a group of radical activists whom he corrals into working for their common cause. Milk magically becomes the savviest politico on the block, and builds a constituency, manipulates the press, and works the media more effectively than his initial naivety would suggest. Offhandedly he notes that “Politics is Theater” and he takes center stage, relishing the spotlight of a flamboyant loss even as he alienates Scott. In the fluid dating world of Castro’s six blocks, a replacement comes quickly in the shape of ultra-high-maintenance Diego Luna (Jack Lira). Luna’s more a liability than anything else, and even though his departure is a relief to us, it deeply affects Milk. Still, politics never stops and he wins the election and jumps into his supervisor’s role until hubris bites him in the form of Dan White (Brolin). Milk initially offers to trade votes with White, but after Milk stiffs him twice, White starts to unravel and eventually murders both Milk and Mayor Moscone in City Hall.

The entire movie gels around Penn’s mincing charm. Even if you hate his politics, his sexuality, and his hair style, he’s just so incredibly charming you can’t stop looking at him. The characters surrounding him are equally as compelling. Milk turns curly-headed Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) from street hustling to political hustling — its Cleve’s job to roust out the barflies and cruisers to rally whenever Milk needs some muscle in the streets. Brolin’s White never seems intrinsically evil — he just has some firmly held beliefs and isn’t smart enough to think beyond them. In some sense, White’s political career is tied to Milk even as they uphold completely opposing views of the world — neither could exist without the other. Another noteworthy performance comes from Luna. One look at him and you can tell he’s leaking trouble out his wing tanks.

The movie sticks closely to the true story of Milk’s career, and Van Sant as often as not finds the authentic locations that framed Milk’s life and death. One thing stands out in this work — Milk is an Important Movie. That’s the only way to justify the preachy last ten minutes of the film. If this had been a regular drama, the murder would be the end, but the Important Movie Rules says you need a little sermonette on the way out of church. That’s not a fatal flaw, but movies that ask “Why can’t we all just be nice?” never seem to get a good answer to the question.


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