Review by Jack Foley
HARVEY Milk was the first openly gay man to be voted into public office in San Francisco in the ’70s. He was assassinated, along with the Mayor of the city, by fellow politician Dan White in 1978.
Gus Van Sant’s riveting biopic chronicles the years in which Milk attempted to get into office, the effect it had on those closest to him and, eventually, upon the city and even the country.
It’s also remarkably timely. Gay rights continue to be at the forefront of American politics and the same nation that elected its first black President in November, also turned its back and voted against same sex marriages as part of Proposition 8. You can’t help but wonder what Milk would have made of that, or how influential his presence may have been.
Van Sant’s film wears its gay pride on its sleeve. It’s unashamedly camp in places, yet doesn’t shy away from some of the more gritty elements of coming out of the closet – gay bashing and even murder (one shot, in particular, as seen through the reflection of a whistle leaves a lasting impression).
It’s also boosted considerably by a first-rate cast who deliver fiercely committed performances. Sean Penn will, deservedly, get the bulk of the plaudits (and awards) for his transformation as Milk.
Whether in gestures, or vocally, Penn nails the part and inhabits the life and soul of the tireless campaigner who inspired a nation. It’s not a role his fans may instantly associate him with, but he rises to the challenge to deliver another virtuoso performance to rival the best in his back catalogue.
He’s well supported, too, with James Franco particularly strong as his on-off lover, Scott, and Josh Brolin excellent as Milk’s eventual assassin, Dan White – a man who clearly has his own demons to juggle.
Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay is suitably probing and doesn’t shy away from the bedroom politics or sequences that may make the less tolerant squirm, and he does an incredible job of honouring Milk’s legacy.
Given the richness of Milk’s life, however, there are elements missing and characterisations that feel a little short-changed (Diego Luna’s Jack Lira, especially, feels a little too one-dimensional). Some may even argue the film is a little too rose-tinted towards its occasionally volatile subject.
But come the final moments, when San Francisco marches in a show of unity to honour Milk’s memory in the wake of his death, you can’t help but feel the enormity of the man’s legend. Van Sant’s film ensures that his memory will live on even longer… and his message remains as timely as ever.
Running time: 2hrs 8mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: June 8, 2009
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Gus Van Sant interview
- Dustin Lance Black interview
- James Franco interview