It’s quite a thing to watch a film like Milk coming off such an historic election year. Yes, they’re all historic, but this one felt like the will of the people had been revived, all due to a hard-fought campaign led by a bright and exceptional candidate, one who just had what it took to care and stick it out, but more than that. Our President-Elect is someone who knows that every time he steps up in front of a crowd, gets out of his car, or buys his kids an ice cream cone. he could get gunned down.
The same country that makes it possible for someone like Barack Obama or Harvey Milk to quiet the voices that say “no way” and turn things around by winning votes is the same country that produces people who, for varying reasons, choose to shoot people at random just because it was the day to make a difference in their otherwise invisible lives.
There is a scene in Gus Van Sant’s Milk where Harvey Milk takes to the stage following a direct assassination threat. The point is he took to the stage anyway. That kind of courage is the thing that made him different from everyone else. Since it is a matter of public record, it really isn’t a spoiler (you might not want to read this paragraph if you don’t know the story) to say that when Milk was gunned down it was for mostly unexplained reasons. It wasn’t a gay hater specifically, it wasn’t a radical right-winger – it was a fellow politician, disgruntled after losing his job.
In one way, Milk marks Van Sant’s return to the mainstream. In another way, it is a moment to reflect on Prop. 8 and what it’s passing, and continued fight, mean to both our gay community and our own civil rights. In Milk we see voices that echo certain voices of today. The fight started then. It started in San Francisco after the sexual revolution with Harvey Milk. The conservatives fought harder and almost won. But a prominent conservative, Ronald Reagan, stood up against Prop. 6 and helped to defeat it in California. The same cannot be said for Prop. 8.
Sean Penn nails the part, turning in yet another brilliant incarnation. You can’t take your eyes off of him throughout the film, and after about ten minutes Penn the actor is quickly forgotten and it feels like you’re watching the real Harvey Milk. James Franco, Josh Brolin, and Emile Hirsch are all magnificent as well.
Gus Van Sant shot the film, scripted by Dustin Lance Black, with a hand-held camera throughout, in order to give the appearance of a rock n’ roll documentary of the time, kind of like The Last Waltz. The live footage from the time weaves seamlessly throughout, and suddenly it feels like we’re living in a parallel universe. Anita Bryant even appears frequently, a ‘70s version of Sarah Palin, speaking publicly about how “unnatural” homosexuality is.
But Milk is, at its core, an American film. It is about what we have the rights to do here and how we exercise those rights. It is a story that needed to be told right now. It’s difficult to see past the politics when watching the film because Harvey Milk’s fight continues today, more passionately than ever.
What would he have thought of all of the closeted politicians shamed publicly after being caught out? What would he have said about the Mormon Church funding Prop. 8? He was a ballsy loudmouth with the smarts to know just what to say and how to say it.