VIEW THIS PAGE One of the first scenes in Milk is of a pick-up in a New York subway station. It’s 1970, and an insurance executive in a suit and tie catches sight of a beautiful, scruffy younger man — the phrase “angel-headed hipster” comes to mind — and banters with him on the stairs. The mood of the moment, which ends up with the two men eating birthday cake in bed, is casual and sexy, and its flirtatious playfulness is somewhat disarming, given our expectation of a serious and important movie grounded in historical events. Milk, directed by Gus van Sant from a script by Dustin Lance Black, is certainly such a film, but it manages to evade many of the traps and compromises of the period biopic with a grace and tenacity worthy of its title character.
That would be Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), a neighborhood activist elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and murdered, along with the city’s mayor, George Moscone (Victor Garber), by a former supervisor named Dan White (Josh Brolin) the next year. Notwithstanding the modesty of his office and the tragic foreshortening of his tenure, Milk, among the first openly gay elected officials in the country, had a profound impact on national politics, and his rich afterlife in American culture has affirmed his status as pioneer and martyr. His brief career has inspired an opera, a documentary film and now Milk, which is the best live-action mainstream American movie that I have seen this year.
Milk is accessible and instructive, an astute chronicle of big-city politics and the portrait of a warrior whose passion was equaled by his generosity and good humor. Penn, an actor of unmatched emotional intensity and physical discipline, outdoes himself here, playing a character different from any he has portrayed before.
DIRECTED BY: GUS VAN SANT
STARRING: SEAN PENN (HARVEY MILK), EMILE HIRSCH (CLEVE JONES), JOSH BROLIN (DAN WHITE), DIEGO LUNA (JACK LIRA), ALISON PILL (ANNE KRONENBERG), VICTOR GARBER (MAYOR GEORGE MOSCONE), DENIS O’HARE (JOHN BRIGGS), JOSEPH CROSS (DICK PABICH), STEPHEN SPINELLA (RICK STOKES), LUCAS GRABEEL (DANNY NICOLETTA), KELVIN YU (MICHAEL WONG),JAMES FRANCO (SCOTT SMITH)
RUNNING TIME: 128 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
In the years since the earnest and commercial Finding Forrester (2000), Van Sant has devoted himself to smaller-scale projects, some of them (like the Palme d’Or-winning provocation Elephant) employing nonprofessional actors, and none of them much concerned with soliciting the approval of the mass audience. Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park are linked by a spirit of formal exploration and also by a preoccupation with death.
Like Elephant (suggested by the Columbine High shootings) and Last Days (by the suicide of Kurt Cobain), Milk is the chronicle of a death foretold. Before that subway station encounter, we have already seen real-life news video of the aftermath of Milk’s assassination, as well as grainy photographs of gay men being rounded up by the police. These images don’t spoil the intimacy between Harvey the buttoned-up businessman and Scott Smith (James Franco), the hippie who becomes his live-in lover and first campaign manager. Rather, the constant risk of harassment, humiliation and violence is the defining context of that intimacy.
And his refusal to accept this as a fact of life, his insistence on being who he is without secrecy or shame, is what turns Milk from a bohemian camera store owner (after his flight from New York) into a political leader.
“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.” That was an opening line that the real Milk often used in his speeches to break the tension with straight audiences, but the film shows him deploying it with mostly gay crowds as well, with a slightly different inflection. He wants to recruit them into the politics of democracy, to persuade them that the stigma and discrimination they are used to enduring quietly and even guiltily can be addressed by voting, by demonstrating, by claiming the share of power that is every citizen’s birthright and responsibility.