Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk, the first gay man elected to substantial public office anywhere in the world. In 1978 Milk was assassinated by fellow San Francisco Board Supervisor Dan White, who also murdered the gay mecca’s Mayor George Moscone. Director Gus (‘My Own Private Idaho’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Good Will Hunting’) Van Sant addresses the actual history in the first few minutes of the film with actual news footage, leaving the journey of Milk’s life the interesting story, rather than its abrupt termination. That this approach should be so warm, so engaging and not a Greek tragedy is testament to the quality of the performances. Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin and others are quite simply remarkable.
Penn embodies every aspect of Milk, from his physical tics, to his appearance, and particularly his homosexuality. That a straight man could ‘play gay’ so convincingly and so fully is testament to his unmatched ability on the big screen. He shows us Milk’s disenchantment with the direction his life was going in, his refusal to accept the closet or the anti-gay status quo of the 70’s, and masterfully embodies the example Milk gave the world in achieving public office, through depicting his implacable honesty about who he was. Van Sant in turn shows us his simultaneous commitment to being the candidate for all the people. He was without doubt decades ahead of his time, and the film’s release in the UK fittingly coincides with the arrival of Barack Obama as the US President, who also rode a very similar message of ‘change’ and ‘hope’ to win the highest office in the world.
I love this film. Van Sant draws you into Harvey Milk’s transformation from disillusioned gay hippy to mainstream gay politician, giving us his friends, his lovers, his neighbourhood, the impact he makes, and even gives a salutory historical reminder. In 1977 California’s Ballot Proposition 6, which aimed to ban gay people from being teachers, was defeated by Milk, who dared to put not just his head above the parapet and be out, but encouraged his friends and supporters to do the same. By proving to the ballot measure’s supporters that we weren’t different to them, that they all knew at least one of us, Milk achieved an historic civil rights victory. Such a different outcome to Proposition 8 last year. Blending actual footage of the time with a grainy, roving steadicam gives the film added authenticity, and is a great reminder of how far Van Sant has come as a director.
It’s a film richly deserving of a raft of Oscars. Penn of course needs one, as does the film. But I can’t help but wonder whether it’s a shade too brave for the Academy to endorse that fully. Harvey Milk remains a major historical figure, who alongside Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, was cut down in his prime. Given that he eschewed the bathhouse culture upon aiming for the mainstream, it’s entirely possible that he might have survived the AIDS pandemic and became a truly vital gay leader in the 80’s and beyond. It’s to Van Sant’s and Penn’s credit that we’ll be left wondering just how great a reality that might have been.