Josh Brolin, left, starts counting the letters in the ever-growing LGBTIQ acronym with Sean Penn in Milk.
Director Gus Van Sant’s Milk wants to recruit you, and—unless you have the frozen-concentrate heart of Anita Bryant—it will. With its subtle camera work, operatic sense of Harvey Milk’s dramatic life and engaging narrative exposition, the film enlists you to join with its vision of hope—hope as realized through engaged citizenship and a tolerance for all the “us’s” that make up the national community.
Not a great film, but a good and necessary one, Milk draws its strength from its internal components: rock solid directing, commitment to historical accuracy and brave and vivid acting. But, more than this, Milk is a must-see film because in reaching back into the issues of the 1970s it speaks directly to our own times, in which discrimination (California’s Prop. 8) and national cynicism (the grim Bush years) seem as though they might just give way to a new civic engagement, to a new sense of tolerance and to a politics of hope. LBGTIQ civil rights are at the forefront of America’s political activism in the 21st century.
Harvey Milk, the unofficial “Mayor of the Castro,” city supervisor for San Francisco and the first openly gay man to serve in political office, was an uncommon politician whose passion was matched by his playfulness. In conscious homage to this singular combination, the film is equally serious and high-spirited. For Milk, politics was “theater,” and Van Sant is able to reproduce this—both the spectacle and the message of the political movement—in his cinematic technique. One way in which he captures the joy and heart of Milk, his movement and “his people” (to use Milk’s own phrase) is through the use of archival footage from the 1970s. The film opens with profoundly disturbing and heart-breaking documentary footage from police raids of gay bars and restaurants in the 1950s and 1960s. The images of men handcuffed and shoved into paddy wagons makes immediately clear what kind of intense and punishing scrutiny kept men and women in the closet until the rise of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement in the post-Stonewall period.
As Milk found pleasure and pride in the fight for queer civil rights, so too does Van Sant’s film—again through the use of archival footage. For example, the film incorporates the political flyers of the politician’s multiple attempts to gain political office (“Milk is good for everyone”), footage of gay and lesbian civil rights marches in San Francisco and of community celebrations and parades.
But Van Sant’s camera does more than just lean on archival footage to celebrate the politics of empowerment that were alive in the 1970s. He mixes a realist narrative with pure visual play. In one scene, chads from the voting ballots in the final Milk election become the confetti floating in celebration of his victory. This kind of visual flash also shows up in a scene regarding Cleve Jones’ phone tree system. The scene harkens back to a famous 1970s Faberge Shampoo commercial. In Van Sant’s use of the visual proliferation of images á la Faberge, Jones’ phone call results in a screen full of multiple and diverse gay men framed in squares of primary colors—all of them chatting on the phone about revolution. The image is at once joyous, historically referential and a sign of growing gay power. As Milk says later in the film, “A gay man with power. Scary!”
Sean Penn’s reproduction of Milk is stunning. The acting is equally compelling throughout the ensemble, with Josh Brolin standing out in his performance as the confused and suffering, but ultimately malevolent Dan White. Watch for the scene where Van Sant and Brolin communicate White’s envy of Milk’s growing political capacities by showing White’s reaction in the reflection of a television screen while he watches Milk on the nightly news.
One of Milk’s standard political lines, along with “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you,” was the axiom “You gotta give ’em hope.” The final shots of the film focus on a conversation between Milk and his former partner and friend Scott Smith. In the darkness of early morning, the two companions talk of their love and pride in the movement. Shafts of light fall across Penn’s face as tears come to his eyes. Van Sant is not subtle in making the point in this shot that a kind of daybreak came to America in the form of Milk and the movement’s work, nor does he need to be. This film honors the commitment and spirit of Milk’s life and times, and in doing so gives us hope.