1972, San Francisco, and newly out New Yorker Harvey Milk is determined to turn his new home on Castro Street into a gay-friendly refuge. As Milk fights overwhelming odds to be elected to public office, he realises that his local problem has assumed national significance...
Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man voted into Californian public office; Hollywood, CA, is yet to elect an openly gay man to true leading-man status. Gus Van Sant’s winning biopic undeniably surges with gay pride, but it stops sadly short of storming this last bastion of inequality. Still, if for some reason Spike Lee had been unable to find a Denzel for his Malcolm X, it’s a fair bet he would have shared Van Sant’s good sense and drafted in that leading man for all seasons: the right honourable Sean Penn.
Setting aside New Orleans coastguard duties, Penn has been fairly quiet since 2005’s The Interpreter, but his never-off-screen Harvey Milk will surely install the 48-year-old as an ante-post favourite for this season’s mandatory gong slog. Penn naturally nails all the mannerisms and lands the showreel moments cold, but also finds sufficient space amid the historical milestones to hint at the intensely private pain that underpins Milk’s mission.
Van Sant, almost certainly fuelled by his own sense of historical purpose, returns to the mainstream with his most conventional movie since Finding Forrester (2000). Indeed, compared to his torpid anti-biopic of Kurt Cobain, Last Days, Milk is as brisk and eager to please as a Labrador puppy. However, if the screenplay from TV writer Dustin Lance Black (Big Love) soon gets hooked on the biographical highs and lows, Van Sant plots a sensible course through the mounting melodrama, wisely resisting the awful temptation that is the overstocked period jukebox and assorted ’70s costume clichés to give the central character of Castro an unassuming, lived-in look. Praise be, there is not a single montage.
Particularly effective is the archive footage Van Sant deploys as a reminder that the history now unfolding was all too real and not that long ago. Anti-gay campaigner Anita Bryant, who rouses Milk to his most important challenge, could easily have been reduced to a pantomime villain, but by relaying Bryant’s pivotal role via newsreel alone, her antediluvian crusade is rendered terrifyingly contemporary.
When Milk finally marshalls the Castro underdogs against the national forces of conservatism, the simmering drama bursts into a full-blown appeal to the spirit. Minor characters are sacrificed, but not all subtleties are trampled underfoot. Josh Brolin’s Dan White is a beautiful miniature of inarticulate rage, rendering unknowable motive as a dramatic strength. In a movie brimming with elevating speeches, White’s inebriated mumble at Harvey’s birthday party is arguably the most eloquent scene.
“You gotta give ’em hope,” Milk concludes, and Van Sant is all too aware that some will parse the story for prophetic parallels to the newly minted 44th President of the United States. However, those seeking historical irony are perhaps better off reflecting that Harvey Milk’s own work is far from done. The very same high California turnout that returned Barack Obama as President last November also voted to uphold Proposition 8 — a ban on gay marriage.
Milk thoroughly deserves all of the press ink that will doubtless be spilt over it. Wear your Vote Penn Oscar pin with pride.