MILK Movie Review

     November 24, 2008

Written by Matt Goldberg

“Milk” is not about a man; it’s about a movement. This is not the life story of Harvey Milk, the first openly homosexual man elected to a major office in America. We get glimpses of how he used to live his life before coming out of the closet, but the film focuses on the his final years and how he found his way into public service and the constant struggle to give a voice to the gay community.

The problem about “Milk” is that it’s not about a man; it’s about a movement. Sean Penn is fantastic as Harvey Milk even if his story is a slightly on the side of a hagiography. He’s surrounded by great actors like James Franco as Milk’s partner Scott Smith and student intern Emile Hirsch but they have very little to work with. They play important figures in Milk’s life but I barely got a sense of who they were as people. I knew that Jones was a tough motherfucker who was skilled at community organizing and that Smith was the long-suffering love of Milk’s life.

What’s great about “Milk” is that it’s not about a man; it’s about a movement. Biopics tend to sit on the easy side of storytelling. Unless you push yourself to think outside the box, like Todd Haynes did last year with the brilliant Bob Dylan biopic, “I’m Not There”, then you’re going to end up with something tame and predictable like “Walk the Line” or “Ray”. Milk serves as a reminder. When they made this film back in January, there was no way they could know that when they released it in November, that Prop 8, the ban on gay marriage on California, would pass or that America would take a major step in civil rights by electing a black man president who ran his campaign with a message of “hope”. “Milk” should remind audiences that yes, we have made some progress in terms of accepting homosexuals but that the fight still rages on.

Some may find “Milk’s” political message underwhelming since Milk’s sole focus is on civil liberties and equal rights for homosexuals. But those who are under-whelmed should remember that Milk didn’t have the luxury of being a politician who just happened to be gay. It takes one battle at a time and for Harvey Milk and the gay community, that battle was getting one of their own elected into office.

Sadly, those who lead the charge in battle are also usually the first to fall. What’s fascinating about the assassination of Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Muscone is that it wasn’t motivated by bigotry. Despite all the death threats he received, Milk’s assassin, former City Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin turning in another strong performance this year), was clearly a disturbed individual but not a religious zealot or raging homophobe. He may be a self-loathing, closeted homosexual but the film leaves that as idle speculation rather than motive.

Indeed, the film’s villain isn’t White, but evangelical Christian Anita Bryant. She’s a potent antagonist because we see her everyday in 2008 and we’ve seen her everyday that the religious right as wormed its way into American politics. We see her in the Pat Robertsons and the Bill Donahues and the Tony Perkins of this world, all bigots who would use the bible as grounds for their hatred and discrimination. Their demagoguery is sickening and while they speak openly to crowds, they never see how their words and attitudes ruin the lives of real people who are simply different. “Milk” may be the story of a movement, but it’s a movement for the gay men who are killed indiscriminately by hateful police officers and gay teenagers who are disowned by their ignorant parents.

Director Gus Van Sant has crafted a strong statement about our current state of civil rights but never comes off as preachy due to Penn’s fully-realized and absorbing portrayal of a civil rights hero you probably never heard about in American History class. On November 4th, America made a big step forward on civil rights for African-Americans but took a step backwards for homosexuals. “Milk” is the story of the movement that may be pushed back by bigotry and intolerance, but will always march forward and one day reach its goal of full equality.

Rating —– B

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