Thursday, January 29, 2009


Milk is Gus Van Sant's biopic of Harvey Milk, a gay activist in 1970s San Francisco who started a business and became part of a movement for gay rights eventually reaching the achievement of being the first openly gay elected official to city council. 

The film opens with Milk recording his life into a tape recorder that is to be played in the even of his assassination. He's very aware of the anger towards gays and toward himself for pushing for gay rights. Alone and sitting as his kitchen table, Milk reviews the life altering moment when he turned 40 and left New York for San Franciso with his new lover. And so the film begins. Throughout the film we return to Milk sitting at his kitchen table, referring to his notes from the yellow foolscap, to remind us that we are being told of events through his eyes and are given the privilege to his private as well as his documented public life. 

The public life of Milk is balanced with the private moments to suggest that old adage that came from the 1970s women's moment "the personal is political." The public events are dramatized with actual footage from the news at the time and through the dramatization. we are reminded of the verisimilitude of the story before us. We're not just watching a biopic, but are being invited to connect to the time and place that the events occurred.  Van Sant offers us something more intimate by using the actual film footage and the repeated close-up image of Sean Penn as Harvey Milk sitting in a darkened kitchen in one of the few moments he is seen alone. Not only does Van Sant connect the personal (private) and the political (public), but by using these techniques Van Sant can draw us into the story beyond just watching a filmic document of the public achievements of Milk. We become emotionally connected to the characters and their lives. 

Much of the plot's tension comes from not knowing when the assassination is going to occur (that is if you're not familiar with the details of his death). You feel it building as Milk's power and popularity swell and Van Sant reminds us that the end is near by showing us the death threats Milk received and tried to dismiss and then later we are offered the image of Milk at the Opera watching Tosca throw herself to her death, suggesting a tragedy will occur in this real story as well. Milk's encounter with a drunken Dan White (Josh Brolin) in a quiet scene that is heavy with undertones of violence in Brolin's repressed performance further reminds us that there is a darkness coming to Milk's life. Closure to his life can be read in the scene where he speaks to his former lover, Scott, on the phone and there is a hint of a reunion between them. All of these scenes lead us to the tragic and shocking death of Harvey Milk. Just because we are told at the opening of the film that Harvey Milk was killed, doesn't make the ending of the film any less tragic or shocking. While Harvey Milk achieved a great amount in his short lifetime, we are left with a sense that he was also just getting started. That is perhaps the greater tragedy that Van Sant leaves us with. 

Sean Penn is brilliant as Harvey Milk. All the performances are stellar, but Penn has to hold the film together and he does. This film is a must see. I know that sounds pushy, but you'll miss out if you don't see it. There is even something similar between Milk's political momentum and Obama's in their messages of hope. Milk realizes (and is advised by an adversary) that he can't just be opposed to things. He has to give the people something to hope for. Hope becomes his message. Doesn't that sound familiar? 

This would be a good dvd rental if you can't make it to the theatre to see it. 


Wandering Coyote said...

Ack! He gets assassinated?!?!?!!? I didn't know that!

I really want to see this, actually, and I really enjoy Penn's acting. Thanks for the review!

SME said...

I saw "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk" a long time ago and thought it was an excellent documentary. And Milk seemed like a very likable guy.

But...San Francisco politics at that time were horrifically corrupt. I find it hard to believe that Milk was a straight-up, honest politician. If he was, he was virtually the only one.

Not that killing anyone was the answer. Junk food. Sheesh.