Reviewed by: Chris

I very nearly gave this movie a miss. I’m pleased I didn’t.

As with the gay-themed Brokeback Mountain, many might have stayed away till they realised it was more of a movie than that. Milk is a biopic of murdered gay rights activist Harvey Milk. But it connects to the audience by being symbolically about everyone, every minority, anybody who has ever been bullied or ashamed to admit their beliefs. It’s about the human spirit. The rights of man enshrined in the American Constitution. And it’s about the compassion that lets us see our enemies as human beings.

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Part of this is down to an outstanding script. But much is down to Sean Penn (at times almost unrecognisable in a beard), who handles the role with a winning combination of grit and sensitivity. He becomes the master orator standing for political office. There are characters in his life who have committed suicide because of the shame of being gay. He is the first openly gay man to hold public office and he gives people hope (in much the same way, it may be said, that the similarly charismatic Barack Obama is doing for black people). We see poignant comparisons with Nazi pogroms against anyone who was ‘different’. We see the fervent religious right, claiming God on their side, as they preach a message of hate.

Righteous hatred is not dead in America. A few hours before seeing Milk, I had watched a horrific documentary about a family of preachers who picket not only ‘faggots’ but anyone they believe tacitly supports homosexuality (the footage included picketing a dead serviceman’s funeral). We have laws against inciting racial hatred. How can they get away with inciting such homophobia?

Milk goes back to the Seventies. Politicians opposing Milk categorise homosexuals with prostitutes and thieves. Deny them any rights. A thief breaks the laws of property. But homosexuals – and prostitutes for that matter – offend only those who wish to discriminate against people who, privately and without hurting others, have the audacity to live differently. Common tactics include linking crime by association. And with prostitution there is some evidence of links to crime, although it may be linked more to marginalisation – and prostitutes could always, at least theoretically, become non-prostitutes. Homosexuality, like being black or Jewish, cannot be ‘treated’. Gays can rarely, if ever, ‘become straight’. And neither is sexual preference an indicator of criminal tendency.

The film takes Harvey's arguments to the most hostile of audiences. He debates with remarkable skill. But, although people warm to him for his courage and kindness, his personal life frequently sinks into tatters. Being second fiddle to a political crusader is no joyride. Even if you were straight. Campaign-trail Harvey might be fighting for your life in broad terms, but it won’t help you through those long nights of dinners for one.

Milk admirably avoids the mistake of glossing over common faults of the gay community – notably male aversion (at the time) to lesbians. In a hilarious scene where Harvey hires a lesbian campaign manager, the all-male entourage dissolves into ridiculous girly twittering against her – until, with a few well-chosen words, she proves she’s got, "bigger balls than anyone in the room". Harvey slowly expands his cause. He realises it can’t be just about gay rights. It has to be about everyone’s rights. If elected, he has to show genuine concern for everyone’s troubles – not just gays. And, after a few political near-slips where he is tempted to cut a deal, he welds himself to a virtuousness in public office that his opponents can only hypocritically claim but not deliver.

We know in the first few moments he is going to die. The rest of the film is told in flashback. Penn, an actor who is occasionally too intense for my liking, has found a film where he can throw every muscle twitch, every watery eye, every shade of emotion into a character and cause where intensity is called for. In one of the finest performances of his career, he is understated to convey finer feeling, yet passionate on the soap box to an inspirational degree.

I was also very pleased to see this praiseworthy development from director Gus Van Sant. Many ‘indie’ directors start off with great ‘artistic’ work, only to be eaten up by Hollywood glitz. Van Sant’s career is almost the opposite. Having proved his mettle with crowd-pleasers like To Die For and Good Will Hunting, he seems gradually to have abandoned all pretensions to mainstream. His Paranoid Park was a masterstroke of subtle evocation in the thriller genre. With Milk, he has applied his skills like a great craftsman, reclaiming self-respect for the serious yet accessible artist.

The one nagging criticism, of course, is, where are all the gay actors? I cannot fault Sean Penn’s acting. He is undoubtedly the best actor for the part. But the very message of equality proclaimed so loudly by Hollywood’s darling liberal left is still unheeded within their own industry. How many openly gay actors can you name? I thought so... And how far have we really got, really - or has apathy set in? As California banned gay marriage, one commentator asked, “Where were today's Harvey Milks when Proposition 8 was on the ballot?”

Reviewed on: 23 Dec 2008
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The story of groundbreaking gay politician Harvey Milk and his assassination.
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Director: Gus Van Sant

Writer: Dustin Lance Black

Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, Lucas Grabeel, Brandon Boyce

Year: 2008

Runtime: 128 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


BIFF 2009

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