Gus Van Sant has emerged from the bold experiments of his last four films to make a more conventional but no less daring, intelligent or thrilling film about America’s first openly gay elected politician, Harvey Milk. Partly a joyful document of San Francisco’s 1970s gay movement as seen through the life and work of one local civil rights campaigner, ‘Milk’ is also a memorial to a coming-together of people under one flag and a punch in the face of those who still hold back the pace of progress with initiatives like the recent Proposition 8. By making a film that’s solidly political but also touchingly personal, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have achieved something similar to Larry Kramer’s Aids play ‘The Normal Heart’ in the mid-’80s: a story of campaigners that puts real gay relationships, and the conflict between public protest and private love, at its heart. Only this time it’s the death of one man, not thousands, that colours the drama.
Milk was an exuberant New Yorker who moved to San Francisco in his early forties, opened a camera store in the city’s burgeoning gay district and, on his third attempt in 1977, was elected to the board of city supervisors. Milk served only 11 months before he and the city’s liberal mayor George Moscone were shot in their offices, but he built a strong reputation, not least as a voice in opposition to senator John Briggs’s Proposition 6, aiming to ban gays from teaching in schools.
Milk’s death inspired a candlelit march on the streets of San Francisco, and in 1984 initiated an Oscar-winning documentary by Robert Epstein from which Van Sant takes many prompts. You can see, too, that Sean Penn has closely studied Milk’s slightly awkward physical presence and upbeat attitude. Van Sant’s cinematographer, Harris Savides, also takes his cue from the archive: there’s so much real and recreated news footage in the film that he develops an evocative, grainy palette of muted colours to match it. Yet while documentary-style realism is mostly the order of the day Van Sant also mixes in more impressionistic, often music-filled moments, especially when focusing on Milk’s love life. Location is key: the filmmakers shot in the streets of San Francisco, so we enjoy the same powerful sense of place as we did with the house in ‘Last Days’, or the high school in ‘Elephant’.
Van Sant reveals Milk’s death at the beginning, before leaping back to New York and his first encounter with partner Scott (James Franco). From there he plays it straight, only jumping forward to show Milk dictating a tape to be played in the event of his death. Tragedy is woven into the film’s lining, but the filmmakers avoid laying on any ideas of destiny or martyrdom, giving as much due to the movement as the man. The story is sad, but the mood is jubilant and the energy relentless.
Penn is a revelation as Milk. He’s always been a no-holds-barred actor, but this is another departure: his energy drives the story. Josh Brolin impresses, too, as Dan White, Milk’s conflicted conservative colleague at City Hall. But it’s also a great ensemble piece: Milk surrounded himself with friends, and actors like Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna add colour to a film that shows politics can offer more than one definition of the word ‘party’.