Thirty years before Sen. Barack Obama broke through a significant political color barrier, Harvey Milk tore down a similar wall that was obstructing America's gay community from holding political office.
Milk finds experimental auteur Gus Van Sant
taking cautious steps back toward the mainstream to celebrate Harvey's accomplishments. Van Sant's tender human-interest story, which showcases Sean Penn
's considerable talents, is a closer relative to earlier efforts such as Finding Forrester or Good Will Hunting than to recent, abstruse features like Elephant, the spare Gerry, or the haunting Last Days. Article continues below
The director opens Milk with sobering news footage announcing the influential politician's murder before rewinding to record the highlights of his life. Most came during a seven-year stretch from 1972-'78, when the 40-year-old camera-store owner (Penn, buried in the role) established himself as the voice of San Francisco's oppressed, disgruntled, and frightened gay community. Someone once dubbed Harvey the Mayor of North Castro, though Penn, in character, jokes he might have came up with the title himself.
From the sanctuary of his humble office in San Fran's liberal Castro neighborhood, Milk launched a series of grassroots campaigns to become the first openly gay man to be elected to public office. Change didn't happen overnight. Milk lost repeatedly but refused to quit, for each election cycle offered a glimmer of hope -- an increase in the number of votes received, or a possible rezoning of districts that would open up favorable neighborhoods. It took several tries before Milk finally broke through the invisible barrier and became an elected member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.
At its best, Milk illustrates how political movements can be born of frustration, and how easy it is for groups of strangers to find unity and strength in numbers. A magnetic Penn leads a powerful ensemble -- Milk is, above all else, an acting showcase for the raw talents of Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and an underused Victor Garber as Mayor George Moscone. Two additional performances deserve recognition. James Franco
is compassionate and supportive as Scott Smith, Milk's longtime lover who served as his campaign manager until the stress of campaigning drove a wedge between the men. And Josh Brolin
continues his astounding streak to play Dan White, a fellow supervisor whose differences with Harvey drove him to murder.
Yet Milk has some flaws. Dustin Lance Black's script has a tendency to keep redefining Milk's battles, which are clear from the film's onset. A strained romance between Penn and Diego Luna
becomes tedious, not tumultuous. The nod to Puccini's opera Tosca (you can't miss it) is extremely heavy-handed. And this is strange to say about a film centered on an outspoken politician, but Van Sant allows Milk to bog down in politics, and the film's rhythm suffers as a result.
Milk also bears the sin of manipulation, from the swells Danny Elfman's warm and full-bodied score to the wheelchair-bound teenager who calls Milk with words of encouragement when things get rough. The movie's message is strong enough. So are the performances. Van Sant didn't have to rely on cinematic tricks.
With all due respect to president-elect Obama, Milk also illustrates how little things have changed. Thirty years after Milk's assassination, America's gay community continues to fight for its civil rights. The passing of California Proposition 8, which eliminated the rights of gay men and women to marry, proved that state -- and the rest of the country -- has a long way to go to realize Milk's vision. What about movie audiences? Will they show support for a crowd-pleasing Oscar-baiter about a progressive gay politician? Box office figures may help answer that in due time.