The film grabbed attention early as the opening sequence shows archival footage of police raids on gay bars in the 60's and early 70's. Still shots mixed with film of police raiding bars and arresting people for no other reason than being present. The police also were famous for calling the press to make sure that those they marched out in handcuffs could be photographed to be sure that they lost their jobs, their homes, and sometimes their lives.
Early on in the film the audience is the given the explanation for the ubiquitous whistle worn by Gays in the 70's. Many people assume it was just a "disco" affectation but it served a real purpose as it was used to bring help when gays were attacked by bigots and bashers on the streets. One scene shows Harvey Milk talking to a police officer about two men who have been beaten to death near his store. The cop makes a point of referring to one man's lover as his "trick" and Milk corrects him about the relationship.
At that point I found myself uttering: "Fuck Mike Huckabee!" under my breath. Of course, Huckabee recently commented that LGBT did not deserve equal Civil Rights because we have not suffered violence at the hands of others nor open oppression.
The film picks up with Harvey Milk meeting Scott Smith who would be his lover for a number of years. They move to San Francisco from New York and open their camera shop in the Castro. Milk then undertakes the task of becoming a community leader and organizer.
We follow Milk's transformation from San Francisco hippie into a political leader over several failed campaigns culminating in his election to the Board of Supervisors for San Francisco in 1977.
The story of Harvey Milk's life is well known, or should be, to any LGBT American, so I won't recount the storyline here. What I do want to touch upon are the great characterizations and universal themes in the film.
When Harvey Milk was elected to his office I was 11 years old. I did not think I had any strong memories of any of these events until I saw this movie today. Suddenly, watching Anita Bryant deliver her hate-filled speeches I realized I remembered quite well seeing her on television and in interviews spouting her poison.
In one archival scene they show her delivering a speech. Watching her I couldn't help but think that this woman was completely crazy. She was evil personified. In this actual footage of her she is spewing her filth and lies and looks as though she is having an orgasm. I do not exagerrate. She literally looked as though her hatred was a sexual release. I could easily see a woman like her presiding over Death Camps and masturbating while she gassed those she deemed "Un-American, Dirty, or Perverted." If there was a pervert from that period, Anita Bryant was it.
What was most interesting in this rehash of historic footage was how little the religious right has shifted their rhetoric in 30 years. The words coming from the mouths of Bryant and others were almost verbatim the type of evil spewed this past election season by people like Rick Warren, Sarah Palin, and almost every rank and file Republican.
I couldn't help but be astounded by the actors in the film, though. As far as I know (correct me if I'm wrong) but all were straight. Yet, they managed to play a range of gay men with subtlety and without overdoing it. That's extremely hard for straight actors when faced with out gay characters. The usual error is to become too stereotypical or not stereotypical enough. There are as many types of gay men as there are straight ones. Some are effiminate, some are not, some are very masculine, some are overly masculine, some are androgynous, and some are all of those things depending on the situation. Gay men have a natural ability to filter their behavior because of the way the world works. This was even more true in the period shown in the film.
Sean Penn simply shines as Harvey Milk. His performance is subtle and realistic. There are no attempts to make Milk be some superhero nor gloss over his faults. In this age of monogamy it could have been very easy to whitewash gay life in San Franciso in the 70's by pretending that sex outside of relationships didn't happen or that casual sex was absent. Instead, the film shows how often one night stands would turn into relationships which were often very wonderful but also rocky and short-lived. There were also references to the bath houses and their role in social life even for those in relationships. Penn allowed Milk's humanity to shine through without turning him into an unrealistic charicature of the man he was.
The supporting cast was excellent. James Franco as Scott Smith showed a man who longed for a quiet life and ultimately could not handle Milk's increasing role as a politician and community organizer. Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones showed a great transformation from a flighty party boy into a strong leader and activist. Jones himself consulted on the movie and Hirsch seems to have easily learned the craft of turning up or down the flame depending on the situation. Again, something straight actors generally are unaware that gay men do all the time.
However, the other breakout role in the film would have to be Josh Brolin as Dan White. Despite the fact that we all know how the story ends, Brolin manages to entice and actually make you wonder if he actually will pull the trigger. Even more than that Brolin's decline during the film raises many questions about White's actual motivations for the murders. The scene where he confronts Milk just before the murders while intoxicated simply rivets and I truly felt my stomach drop as I flashed on anti-gay bullies I've encountered over the years.
I have to agree with reviews I've read that mention how Jack Lira, Milk's second lover seems one dimensional. He did seem more broadly drawn than other characters in the film. I don't know enough about the real Jack Lira who committed suicide to comment on the veracity of the portrayal. However, I can say that I have known people much like the character in the film that Diego Luna portrays. These are needy, desperate people who seek validation in others. Lira seems to be utterly lost without Milk or someone in his life. I could certainly see someone suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder in his frequent mood swings and his panic if Milk was not available on a moment's notice to validate him in some way. In one scene he even locks himself in a closet because he is afraid Milk has stood him up in order to make sure Milk pays him attention at a party and then when Milk arrives he screams at him to go away. Certainly, that's classic BPD behavior.
I was surprised by the soundtrack and score of the film. After seeing the trailer on TV a number of times I was expecting a soundtrack heavy with 70's rock. Bowie's "Queen Bitch" features prominently in the trailer but only a very short clip is used in the film. Refreshingly and surprisingly the film tends toward Classical music and often dips into Tosca to reflect the emotional underpinning of a scene. DiStefano's "e Lucevan le Stelle" makes a beautiful background to the scene where Scott breaks up with Milk and moves out of their apartment.
But, one of the central themes of the movie deals with the Prop 6 campaign in 1978 that sought to remove Lesbian and Gay teachers from the public schools. Anita Bryant and other evangelicals threw their weight behind the measure and in a close run thing the Prop 6 was rejected by the voters that November. In an amazing parallel to the present we can see the same strategies that failed in 1978 that succeeded in 2008 with Prop 8. Watching how Prop 6 was fought in '78 also points out the errors made in 2008. Harvey Milk took the fight to the people and worked hard to build bridges with all sorts of people. He was not afraid to get into the midst of the fight even in Orange County, the base of both 6 and 8. Yet, in 2008, activisits did not venture out of their comfort zone instead writing off entire areas as "hopeless" and thereby not engaging people directly.
I found it quite funny that the film uses a clip of President Carter saying briefly he is "against Prop 6" during a visit to the state in '78. In light of Obama's almost dismissive gesture the other day in the wake of him inviting the current anti-gay demigod to speak at his inauguration, the line was bittersweet. Obama managed to throw us the same bone 30 years later that Carter did in '78. How prescient of Van Sant to include the clip.
Milk is a moving and uplifting story. It reminds us all of how much work there is to be done, how much things have changed and how much they have stayed exactly the same. I hope that every young person will see this film either straight or gay. Further, I hope that gay leaders of today will remember that it's best to agitate in the streets and deal in private. That as Harvey Milk showed us, turning thousands into the streets on a moments notice can add the push necessary to make a change.
But most importantly everyone should see this film to know that hope never dies.
575 Castro St. from FilmInFocus on Vimeo.