By Jas Singh
“My name’s Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you!” The crowd cheers. It’s San Francisco, the 1970s. Fast forward 30 years: the man is no longer among us, but his dream and struggle still live on, now even more so, with an exceptional film, Milk.
Harvey Milk (Sean Penn, Mystic River) was the first openly gay man elected to public office. The film chronicles his struggle also to become not only an elected official, but to make gay rights an important issue in this country. The film takes place at the heart of the movement, San Francisco.
Harvey was a closeted Wall Street banker, hitting 40. Only when he meets Scott Smith (James Franco, Pineapple Express) does he realize that there’s more to life than just an empty, hidden existence. He sets out to San Francisco with Scott, where he gets caught up in the discrimination against gays. There are merciless police beatings and gay couples being openly taunted and shunned from society. Harvey sees this and decides to make things right by organizing a movement, using a common message to bring the community’s gays together: love over hatred.
After unsuccessfully running for city supervisor two times, he finally wins in 1976. It is here that he meets Dan White (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men), a fellow supervisor, who has a rocky relationship with Harvey. While the two often work together, Dan harbors an intense resentment toward Harvey. Harvey is everything Dan is not, yet Harvey has become a successful and popular figure.
The film plays out very much like a documentary, with Harvey providing the flashbacks to certain parts of his life as he recalls them into a tape recorder. Through the use of archival footage, the audience gets a glimpse into Harvey’s world. And while the end is told to the audience very early on, its impact isn’t felt until it happens, proving just how immersed one gets into this world, so vividly portrayed by the actors and the crew.
Every performance shines and gives the film that much more depth and meaning. Penn, who is usually seen in tough, dark and brooding roles, plays Harvey to perfection, from his speech to even his mannerisms. He plays a likable character, which is something very different from Mystic River’s Jimmy Markum or the plethora of different, yet similar roles played in the past. Harvey is a kind and gentle-hearted soul, often times so enamored with the prospects of helping the people, he forgets those around him.
Then there are the many supporting actors. Franco plays Scott, Harvey’s much younger lover, in a very subtle manner, always being supportive even as Harvey’s political prospects soar higher. It’s heartbreaking to see it finally take a toll on their relationship, as he is Harvey’s first true love and still remains so, even after leaving.
As Harvey begins his activist role in his community, he stumbles upon Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild), and soon becomes his mentor. Hirsch plays Cleve as a lost soul, never quite knowing what his true identity is, at least not until encountering Harvey. It is then that Cleve realizes his true calling.
But make no mistake; this film would be absolutely nothing without the brilliant and restrained performance that Brolin gives as Dan. He’s a friend, yet he’s extremely spiteful toward all of Harvey’s achievements. Harvey believes that Dan, like he once was, may be a closet homosexual. He doesn’t say much; the intensity of his performance lies solely in his facial expressions. Everything from his banter with Harvey to his long silent moments, when viewers focus only on him and the soulful Danny Elfman score, speaks volumes. So when the time comes that the two men are truly at odds, the end result is that much more tragic for both men.
Gus Van Sant, known for directing Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, among others, brings a unique perspective to the film. Like the many films that have dealt with gay relationships, this one pushes boundaries. An unprepared audience might feel uncomfortable, though it has absolutely no reason to be. Van Sant shoots things in a way that remains tasteful, yet retains the emotion behind the scene. The script from Dustin Lance Black provides some great moments of closeness and underlying tension in the movement, as well as giving the audience a real great sense of the times.
Milk is a film very relevant to the times, which only goes to show how much work still needs to be done in honoring what Harvey, among others, started just a few decades ago. It’s a film that will be talked about for years to come, partly for the performances but more importantly for Harvey’s achievements and the legend he has since become. It’s a film not to be missed that aims to not only educate, but inspire. As Harvey Milk said, “Without hope, life’s not worth living.”