Just when Calgary homophobes thought it was safe to return to the multiplex Gus Van Sant returns with a quintessential masterpiece of New Queer Cinema intended for mainstream audiences. Milk pushes the film envelope and in the process makes Brokeback Mountain look as straight as Rio Grande. Notwithstanding the commercial challenges of a biopic on America’s ill-fated, first openly gay politician, Milk is likely to be a great success, especially when the Academy Awards roll around.
Van Sant, best known for Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s career launching Goodwill Hunting, returns from a five year Hollywood hiatus, after spinning indie gold with films like Gerry, Elephant,Last Days, and Paranoid Park. Van Sant conforms to more conventional filmmaking and story with an all star cast headed by Sean Penn who plays it-how can it best be phrased? Supergay. Emile Hirsch plays flamboyant hustler turned political player Cleve Jones and James Franco, coming into his own right as an actor with gravitas, is Milk’s long time partner Scott Smith. If you aren’t gay going into this film there is an outside chance you may switch teams simply because of the breadth of talent.
For those unfamiliar with Harvey Milk, his story proves to be as ideal for fiction film as it was for the Academy Award winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, a quarter century ago. In an epiphany at the age of forty, Milk and his partner move to San Francisco from New York and set up a camera shop on Castro Street. Milk’s business soon becomes the Mecca of gay activism and he wields considerable power after convincing the gay community to blacklist businesses that are not gay friendly. He runs for civil office three times and in 1978 finally lands a council seat receiving endorsements from seniors, minority groups, and even the Teamsters. By the time Milk is assassinated by fellow councilman Dan White (Josh Brolin), he has in his short tenure stopped a national campaign of anti-gay legislation and is responsible for enshrining gay rights for the citizens of California. Milk personifies the gay rights movement not just for a city but for the entire United States.
Milk’s audiotape that he had presciently made in the case of his assassination works as the narrative engine for the film. Screenwriter Dustin Black (Big Love) does an incredible job of seamless exposition and plot paced dialogue. The veracity of the story is spot on and Van Sant actually shot scenes in the locales in the Castro district. The set designers and decorators recreate the 70s without the usual embellishments and stereotypes that mar similar productions. Penn’s Milk is charming and passionate but also impetuous and capricious. The film is not a beatification but rather an honest rendition of gay history, with Harvey Milk front and centre, that is largely unknown and misunderstood by most. The final parting line “you gotta give them hope” is a timely and mindful allusion to the contemporary American political scene that is only finally beginning to resolve the issue of race.
Van Sant’s restrained filmmaking approach is also deserving of some serious Oscar consideration. As an illustration of his genius, in one of the pivotal scenes he subtly employs the motif of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and the effect is breathtaking. Van Sant doesn’t go for big shots and easy pay-offs and the quality shows. But the film is unequivocally Sean Penn’s and one can only hope that Robert Downey’s character’s off color advice inTropic Thunder doesn’t apply to playing gay.
“…then there was Sean Penn in ‘I Am Sam.’ He went full retard. Left the Oscars empty-handed. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard.”