Director Gus Van Sant’s biopic about Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay men to be elected to public office, may be set in the mid 1970s, but the culture war 30 years ago is eerily reminiscent of the one being waged today. Luckily, Van Sant is as concerned about Milk as a person as he is with the larger issues at hand. That, and a spirited, natural lead performance from Sean Penn, help “Milk” become a wide-ranging portrait of the San Francisco gay rights movement and its people.
Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting,” “Paranoid Park”) flips back and forth between the warm, rich cinematography of Harris Savides and plenty of grainy archival footage throughout. The variety of film stocks and sources create a convincing sense of period, bouyed by dialogue and lingo that seem very “of the times.” Interestingly, the gay movement’s greatest political rival appears as herself in actual news reports from the ’70s (which also feature news anchors Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite).
Miss America runner-up-turned-pop-singer Anita Bryant campaigned heavily against gay rights, leading successful campaigns in Dade County, Fla. and Wichita, Ks., among other places, that were based on her “Christian belief” of the “perceived threat of homosexual recruitment of children and child molestation.” Eventually, the fervor over her crusade reaches California in the form of Propoistion 6, a proposed law that would make it mandatory to fire gay teachers and teachers who support gay rights. It was then that Milk, a camera-shop owner who ran unsuccessfully for city supervisor many times before finally being elected, was catapulted onto the national stage.
Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay hits all the standard “highlight” biopic moments in its scope, but it wisely doesn’t try to tackle Milk’s entire life. In fact, “Milk” is a better encapsulation of a specific moment in time than it is a comprehensive portrait of one man’s journey. The gay community that thrived in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco comes to life with a strong sense of humanity and good humor, especially for a group that was constantly threatened with random killings and harrassment. As played by Penn, Harvey Milk himself radiates kindness and possesses an unflappable resolve. There isn’t much difference between the man who is constantly thrust forward to speak for the gay community and the friend who helps a strung-out stranger into his shop late at night.
Considering that it is a story steeped in tragedy, “Milk” is a joyous movie. In the film’s opening minutes, we see an actual TV broadcast announcing Milk’s murder inside City Hall in 1978. Flashing back to eight years previous, Harvey is shown in a playful exchange on a New York subway platform with Scott Smith (James Franco), who would become his boyfriend of many years. Although we don’t learn about the specifics of Milk’s life before then, there is a great feeling that the couple’s subsequent journey to the West Coast has freed them of their need to hide their sexuality. Harvey’s complete openness will later be the key to his political fortunes and the growth of the movement.
Josh Brolin plays fellow city supervisor Dan White, a figure who seems at once attracted to and repelled by Harvey. White’s pent-up frustrations are alluded to but, like much of the movie, ultimately left up to interpretation. White serves as a mirror to what some in “straight” society must have been feeling at the time of Harvey’s political rise. He appears bewildered and alienated by the sudden change in the wind as Milk breezes flamboyantly through public office, while he struggles to get bills passed that he feels represent his Irish-Catholic district. Brolin’s short amount of time onscreen does nothing to diminish the power of his performance, a truly three-dimensional yet restrained achievement.
Suffering a little bit from the common biopic hazards, “Milk” doesn’t always have a plot that propels itself forward effectively, especially in the beginning. Like Harvey’s life, though, the movie finds its direction and positions its main character as a symbol of hope without a preachy mentality. What’s scary is that the same arguments against homosexuality are surfacing again now like they did in Milk’s time. Van Sant’s agile movie, full of fresh performances and vigorous life, should go a long way towards making people examine how they feel about human rights.