Gus Van Sant’s intimate, graceful and nostalgic portrait of gay politician Harvey Milk resonates with honesty for the period, the man, and those around him – much of it due to Dustin Lance Black’s carefully researched screenplay which constrains Van Sant to offer up a more conventional film than previous work like Elephant, Paranoid Park or My Own Private Idaho. Nominated for eight Academy awards including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor, Milk charts the life of the first openly gay man to take public office in the USA, and it’s a warm and composed performance by Sean Penn that gives the film its soft centre.
Harvey Milk was born and raised in New York and worked as a researcher for a Wall Street stock-broking firm until he drifted to California along with increasing numbers of gay men and woman. Many were frustrated with a conservative mainstream society that discriminated against homosexuality and which saw conservative politician John Briggs propose the now infamous ‘Proposition 6’, an act aimed at banning gays and lesbians – and anyone supporting them – from working in schools. Milk, who had long been involved in street level politics, and who had by this time become unofficial “mayor” of the gay community in San Francisco, decided to shed his hippie image and run for office. Unapologetic about his gay status, warm and supportive to anyone in need of help, and inspiring with his belief in equality and hope, Milk overcame a series of setbacks until he was finally elected to office in 1977.
Milk – as you’d expect from an independent film director like Van Sant – deliberately steers away from any overly contrived Hollywood-style drama, and lingers leisurely on intimate moments of Milk’s life from 1970 – the eve of his 40th birthday – to 1978 when his life was cut short. Van Sant opens the film with historical footage of the persecution of gays and of the announcement of Milk’s death, clearly establishing his intention to avoid the story becoming a thriller. It’s slow in parts – but always with an affectionate eye for the main character, and uses archival footage and a casual 1970’s production design to create a sense of realism and sincerity. The cast surrounding Penn are equally genuine and warm – Emile Hirsch as the gay activist Cleve Jones, James Franco as Milk’s lover Scott Smith, and even Josh Brolin who plays the troubled conservative politician Dan White – the Irish-Catholic family man who never quite knew what to do with Milk’s generosity and low-level charisma. It’s a wonderful biopic and a fascinating recollection of the gay struggle of the 1970’s.