Gus Van Sant’s stunning drama may push buttons you didn’t even know you had.
The story of Harvey Milk, the first elected openly gay man elected to office in the United States (yes, he’s the San Francisco town supervisor who was murdered along with Mayor George Moscone by fellow supervisor Dan White) is as vital and interesting today as it was when it took place, back in the 1970’s. Because this is a movie about a political struggle for equal rights; it is sadly ironic just as this movie was about to be released, California voters passed the proposition banning gay marriage in their state. Watching this affecting historical piece, one can’t help but wonder, “what would Harvey have done now?”
Milk, we see here, was just another nice homosexual man, trying to live and work with his partner Scott in the City by the Bay until his photo shop became a kind of neighborhood hangout. Scared for their lives and their safety, the men banded together in an informal fashion, thinking they could never look to the establishment for protection. Harvey, however, was attracted to not just activism, but politics. He took to it easily and, after several attempts, found himself in City Hall, fighting the good fight, not just for his constituents, but for all fellow citizens, sick of walking in uncollected dog poop, too. Milk’s moment in the sun revolved around the infamous California Proposition 6; a ballot issue to prevent gays from teaching or being employed by the public school system. The price he paid for winning that fight, along with all the others, was, of course, much too dear.
It should take nothing away from Sean Penn to say that his focused, on target work as Milk, is another in a long line of superb performances. He is well supported by a number of actors, including James Franco as Harvey’s love, Scott Smith, and an incandescent Emile Hirsch, a spitfire of energy as the young Cleve Jones. Capping off a remarkable year (or two), Josh Brolin nails it as the eventual madman whom, we were told, lost it to having eaten too much sugar.