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Thursday, December 18, 2008

I Believe In Harvey MILK (2008)

MILK, the new Gus Van Sant film about assassinated gay activist and 1977 San Francisco State Supervisor Harvey Milk, is anything but conventional.

The film starts off on a rocky foot quickly skimming through Milk’s failed attempts at gaining office in San Francisco. I think maybe if Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black had spent more time on just one or two events leading to the ’77 win the beginning might have played smoother. A small complaint aside, seeing Harvey Milk’s transformation from an inspired go-getter to an enrapturing delicate leader is fascinating.

And as everyone has already stated (skeptics and fans), Sean Penn gives a phenomenal performance as Harvey Milk. He really is quite beautiful here. The way he interacts with his friends and enemies, tenderness and humor, makes me wish I could have met the man himself. Sean Penn becomes the engrossing personality and all ego and vanity are thrown out the door.

The film hops and skips a long through Milk’s trials, but really hits its stride when the passage of Prop 6 (The ability to fire teachers based on sexual orientation) looms ahead in 1978. Milk tells his boyfriend Scott Smith (a wonderful James Franco) that these fights are bigger than him, bigger than their relationship. Scott can’t take the neglect so he leaves. Milk was a man (a hero) who suffered greatly for the cause, but he took it all in stride and with a smile.

The battle becomes more than just cries against Anita Bryant (a homophobic hate monger and former pop star) when off-balance San Francisco State Supervisor Dan White (the extraordinary Josh Brolin) starts to become obsessed with Milk. He watches him constantly on television, invites him to his son’s christening, tries to make random deals with him and in one truly chilling scene White, drunk and late for Harvey’s birthday, confesses some very creepy thoughts and pathetic assertions. White seems to be an embittered ex-lover, jealous of Milk and his popularity. Dan White wasn’t a ridiculous homophobe, just a lonely man who didn’t know how to communicate. And that’s the tragedy.

As glorious as the victory was in 1978, Milk knew that they needed to keep pushing forward and I think the power of MILK is in how contemporary this all feels. This is no dusty biopic lionizing Milk and his achievements. MILK is a rallying cry through the words and images of the man. Harvey Milk was a kind man, maybe too kind, but regardless you can feel his spirit here alive and full of wisdom.

I can’t even imagine where we would all be today if Milk was still alive; at least we still have his message and his words, “You gotta give ‘em hope.”


Harvey Milk's last words on tape


Emily Kane said...

I agree. The film is truly a rallying cry, and a damn good (and emotional one) at that.

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