Status: In limited release (opened 11/26/08)
Directed By: Gus Van Sant
Written By: Dustin Lance Black
Cinematographer: Harris Savides
Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Allison Pill
It’s tempting to consider that Harvey Milk—businessman, San Francisco Supervisor, and gay-rights activist—knew that he was living a life that would make for a good film. Shortly before his assassination, he recorded an audio monologue describing his experiences and beliefs and correctly predicting the manner in which his life would end, providing a terrific blueprint for would-be biographers. What Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant have done, however, is so much more than simply a retelling of an already-told story. They’ve recreated not just a specific time and a specific place, and told the story of the people (Milk in particular, obviously) who lived there and then, but also the mood and the ambiance and the culture that existed in San Francisco in the 1970s, and they’ve done so in stunning fashion. Mlik isn’t just a “biopic”—though in that regard, it excels—it’s also an historical account (it could, I suppose, almost be called a “period piece”) with production value and a storytelling flare that lends even more credence to its already-weighty subject matter.
The film chronicles Milk’s arrival in the Castro from New York and his subsequent failed attempts at running for public office after discovering his knack for community organizing. I’ll defer to Rob Epstein, director of the 1984 Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, to describe what happened from that point, the situation both documented in his film and dramatized in Gus Van Sant’s:
In 1978 voters elected Harvey Milk to the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco’s city council, making him the first openly gay politician elected to public office in California. These unprecedented cultural upheavals provoked a national reaction. Anita Bryant—a former Miss America, orange juice jingle singer, spokesmodel, and born-again Christian—took the anti-gay lead. In California, a little-known state senator named John Briggs saw an opportunity and took up the fight as well. He crafted the California ballot proposition “Prop 6“, which would ban openly gay people from working in the public school system.
How fortuitous that Milk would come out just weeks after a similar California measure was passed. We see both how relevant the movement that Harvey Milk spearheaded still is, and how little the world has really changed in the intervening 30 years, despite the advances he and his successors made—and have continued to make—in that time. The parallels between Prop 6 of 1978 and Prop 8 of 2008 are striking, and we see that Anita Bryant and John Briggs make for as good of heels in their day as do the Mormons and the rest of the “pro-family” movement today.
Milk‘s production blurs the line between archival footage and dramatic recreation expertly. Every aspect of the settings and characters and events is remarkably staged, from the facade of Milk’s camera store to the tight jeans worn by Emile Hirsch’s character to James Franco’s mustache. The film doesn’t just depict San Francisco in the 1970s, it exists in it. It’s difficult to tell at times in the film when we’re watching newly shot material and when we’re watching previously-existing pieces of film, and I mean that in the best way possible: Van Sant has an innately tuned sense of what he can and cannot achieve in this manner, and walks the line as well as I’ve ever seen. There’s an incredible attention to detail throughout every aspect of the film: the set dressing, the costumes and makeup, and most of all the acting, which is consistently terrific throughout.
And here I’ve said all of this and not yet gotten to the performance of Sean Penn, which is every bit as good as anticipated and every bit as good as you’ve heard, and then some. He provides this year’s unlikely version of Daniel Plainview, a character so fully embodied that it feels more like a documentary than reenactment. His speech pattern, hair, and makeup are the more obvious parts of this embodiment, and they’re all as dead-on as could be expected; the more subtle gestures and mannerisms and other embellishments Penn adds take it into rare territory, certainly one of the best performances of the year, if not the best.
What I found to be the most striking evidence of the quality of the overall production of Milk is that it is able to inform you in the opening scene of the manner in which it will climax, and yet still that moment is surprising and shocking and feels as dramatic as it must have for those who lived around it when it happened. Had this movie come out last year, or next year, it would still have been great—it’s not like the filmmakers suddenly decided to produce it in response to recent events, afterall. Admittedly, the timing of its release elevates it that much more, as its subject matter is at the forefront of the audience’s consciousness even before they enter the theater. I think we’ll see this effect play out in the form of Oscars and other awards, and I don’t think any bit of it will be undeserved.