April Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 12 years ago

When Sean Penn picked up his Oscar for best actor at the Academy Awards this year, the first words of his acceptance speech offered a glimpse of his character in Milk. “You commie, homo-loving, sons of guns,” he said to slowly erupting laughter and cheers, “I did not expect this.”

Harvey Milk may never have uttered those intial adjectives, but he possessed the same disarming charm. Penn took a page right out of Milk’s book: use humour to win people over.

Milk had to do it. As an openly gay activist running for public office in the mid-70s, he faced hostile, homophobic audiences. His strategy worked. People cautiously listened to him, and over time, many accepted that gays were no different from themselves: there was nothing wrong with them and they were not sick. So after several failed campaigns, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the US, winning the post of city supervisor for San Francisco in 1977.

In Milk, director Gus Van Sant paints a picture of the final years of this successful and tragic politician’s life. For it was only in those last eight years (after turning 40), as massive social change was shaking up the American landscape, that Milk left his insurance job in New York, moved to the burgeoning gay neighbourhood of Castro Street in San Francisco with his much younger partner, Scott Smith (James Franco), and found himself drawn into politics to fight for gay rights and against discrimination, which was often violent.

Van Sant’s treatment of the material is mature and expansive. Being openly gay himself, he has gone beyond telling a story of the struggle for gay rights. Van Sant presents the story of Harvey Milk and the national movement for gay rights on many levels: political, personal, ethical and theological. Milk was a visionary. He inspired millions around the country as he was the force and courage propelling the gay movement. As such, his life, both public and private, became a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows. Van Sant captures it all thoroughly. Tight scenes, swiftly paced, keep this intimate drama from dragging. Add the perfect vintage costumes and styling, all captured in 1970s-era colour, and the entire story of an evolving man in an evolving society has realism and an authenticity that many biopics lack.

Unsurprisingly, Penn dominates this movie. The focus of nearly every scene, Penn plays the daring leader with nuanced skill. Every challenge Milk faces, every relationship he nurtures and every guilty pleasure in which he indulges, add to his myth. Franco, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin form the core of a solid supporting cast who all put in nicely textured performances.

The shock of some powerful events in Milk’s life is subdued in the film, though. They lose their impact as Van Sant chooses to telegraph them early on. Otherwise, Milk manages to be an inspirational story whose retelling is timely given the repeal of gay marriage laws in California in November of 2008. And with Penn’s second Oscar-winning performance at the centre, it is not to be missed.