Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
USA, 2008. Focus Features, Axon Films, Groundswell Productions, Jinks/Cohen Company, Cinema Vehicle Services. Screenplay by Dustin Lance Black. Cinematography by Harris Savides. Produced by Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks. Music by Danny Elfman. Production Design by Bill Groom. Costume Design by Danny Glicker. Film Editing by Elliot Graham. Academy Awards 2008. American Film Institute 2008. Boston Film Critics Awards 2008. Golden Globe Awards 2008. Independent Spirit Awards 2008. National Board of Review Awards 2008. New York Film Critics Awards 2008.
New York businessman Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) finds love with James Franco and decides he can live the closeted life no longer. The two of them pack up their car in the mid-70s and head for San Francisco, where Milk sets up a camera shop on Castro Street. His immense popularity with members of the burgeoning gay community eventually finds him getting involved in local political activism and, later, political office; Milk, like many of his contemporaries, decides that he is tired of being ghettoized and demonized by right-wing, Christian-centric media that makes homosexuals into easily scapegoated villains for everything that the moral majority fears. He becomes the first openly gay man elected to higher office (as a councillor for the city of San Francisco) after many years of effort, and once in office uses his skillful combination of fearless activism and political savvy to counter ignorance wherever he can. The fight reaches its climax when he goes head to head with Anita Bryant in the fight against Proposition 6, a bill introduced to prevent gays and lesbians from seeking protection against discrimination the way that other minorities in the United States do. There’s no doubt that the film has a message that is incredibly appropriate for its contemporary audience and isn’t just a history lesson, but what this graceful, exquisitely powerful film by director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black does in adapting Milk’s life (and the documentary on his life, The Times Of Harvey Milk by Rob Epstein) is something that very few movies, particularly biopics, have done in a long time: it inspires. The Motorcycle Diaries was perhaps the last film that reminded us sleepy, comfortable first-worlders of the need to shake it up a bit and remind people that no one should accept being told to sit at the back of the bus. Van Sant’s film is a marvel for how well it paints its emotions in bold brush strokes and yet never feels like it is overstating anything. Penn beautifully encapsulates Milk’s passion as well as his humour (which is not something I ever expected from the man who looks like he smokes in the shower), while Franco is deeply effective, quietly loving and sensually smooth everywhere that Penn is gregarious and bright. Van Sant manages to not only make a great movie but to really capture a moment; despite the tragedy of its outcome (Milk was gunned down by a former coworker who was bitter about his own political failures), this one will live in your heart long after you see it.