Director: Gus Van Sant
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
New York, 1970 and San Francisco, 1970-1978. Archive footage of police raids of gay bars, then press announcements about the death of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Milk records his will days before his assassination. In New York in 1970, Milk meets Scott Smith on the eve of his 40th birthday. Milk and Smith depart for San Francisco and establish a camera shop in the gay neighbourhood of the city. Finding bigotry and prejudice from locals, Milk becomes an activist for gay rights, assisted by his position as a prosperous businessman.
Milk unsuccessfully stands for election as city supervisor in 1973 and 1975, then in 1976 for the California state assembly. Milk eventually is elected as a city supervisor in 1977. During this time Smith has left Milk, frustrated by his devotion to politics, and Milk has started a relationship with Jack Lira, an unbalanced young man. Milk closely works with Dan White, a married Irish Catholic whom Milk suspects of being a repressed homosexual, but tensions arise when Milk refuses to vote with White on various local issues. White refuses to support Milk over Proposition 6, a referendum on whether to fire public service workers who are known homosexuals. Milk oversees the campaign that defeats Proposition 6. A frustrated White resigns from the board and when he seeks his post back, Moscone declines. An armed White then sneaks into City Hall to assassinate Moscone and Milk.
One of the most idiosyncratic and intriguing American directors, Gus Van Sant had his fingers seriously burned when he last worked in Hollywood. After ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997) received critical acclaim and commercial success, his follow up features ‘Psycho’ (1998) and ‘Finding Forrester’ (2000) did not receive anything like as much favour although this critic actually has much time for the ‘Psycho’ remake from an artistic perspective. Since, Van Sant has worked outside the mainstream, directing a number of low budget experimental features mainly with non-professional casts and a preference for improvisation. ‘Milk’ represents Van Sant’s return to Hollywood and it’s reasonable enough to suggest that he’s still capable of working within the “system”. ‘Milk’ is a largely successful and impressive balance between the demands of mainstream film making and the director’s own artistic impulses. It’s also difficult to think of another director capable of producing a film that does justice to its subject.
Van Sant is largely faithful to the conventional techniques of biopics, retelling Milk’s life in a more or less chronological fashion. Milk recites his own story as he records his will just days before he was assassinated. This feels like a contrived narrative device in a way, as if Van Sant has to clarify and reinforce when and where events take place rather than entrusting the audience with understanding this. Much like the adjoining interviews in ‘Frost/Nixon’, this device seems redundant and unnecessary and doesn’t really add anything to the film. This gives ‘Milk’ a by-the-book feel, as if Van Sant wasn’t confident enough to use the narrative conceits he’d used in his previous few films.
‘Milk’ might be conventional in that sense, but Van Sant doesn’t just rely on recreating the events of Milk’s life as run of the mill biopics would. He alternates this with plenty of documentary footage, including excerpts of the Oscar-winning documentary ‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ (1984) and the photographs which open the film – police raids of gay bars and the arrest of men who like Milk were “in the closet” and living superficially respectable lives. Although it’s often difficult to distinguish between documentary footage and the film itself, the impact is to reiterate how this is real people and real lives that are the subject. This is fact, not fiction.
One of the great positives about ‘Milk’ is how it reflects the genuine moral and political climate of the 1970s. A growing wave of conservatism takes over the country, even in a supposedly liberal San Francisco, in which Milk and his friends experience first hand prejudice from police and local residents. Van Sant uses more documentary footage to demonstrate the rise of a moral majority which made the persecution of homosexuals in public office their main crusade. Real interviews with the likes of Anita Bryant, who was one of the main supporters of Proposition 6 indicate the general tone of intolerance across the country and all states besides California backed the proposition. Not that Van Sant would have known at the time but the release of ‘Milk’ at this current time has a rich sense of irony. Almost unnoticed during the euphoria of the election of Barack Obama in November 2008, California passed a law banning gay marriage in the state. Milk had spent years breaking down barriers of prejudice and obtaining the rights which had been denied to homosexuals but recent events suggest that perhaps attitudes haven’t changed as much as we would like to think. Van Sant acknowledges that Milk’s achievement of mobilising the gay community across the United States was exceptionally impressive. Unlike people from racial/ethnic minorities, homosexuals in the 1970s could hide their identity and remain “in the closet”, much as Milk himself did before meeting Smith in 1970. Milk encouraged homosexuals to “come out”, stating it was the only means of gaining acceptance. White on the other hand represents Milk during the repressed and unsatisified spell of his life. Whether Van Sant’s theory about White’s sexality has any credence or not, what he depicts is the strict codes of masculinity of the fiercely conservative Irish-American working class community.
Van Sant never shies away from showing Milk’s sexuality. Whether he only had two lovers during this time, who knows, but in typical style, Van Sant fetishises their intimacy, filming with a series of close ups of eyes, faces and bodies, all slightly out of focus and distorted. At the heart of the film is a superb central performance by Sean Penn in the Milk role and he is assisted by a number of excellent supporting performances. Only Diego Luna as Jack fails to maintain this high standard though this is probably because it’s a thankless role more than anything as an unstable and unsympathetic lover of Milk’s. The candlelit vigils that follow Milk’s death are incredibly moving but perhaps even more so is a scene where a young man unable to “come out” to his parents calls Milk, who tells him to leave for the nearest big city where his lifestyle would be more acceptable. When Van Sant cuts from the man’s face to his wheelchair, we know full well how truly trapped he really is. ‘Milk’ is a fiercely relevant and intriguing biopic of a man who is not made into a hero but a figurehead for a struggle which still continues to this day and who would begrudge it any awards it collects this season?