“My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you!” It’s often the simplest statements that prove to be the most powerful. This simple statement helped Harvey Milk to inspire people to join him and make their voices heard to make a stand against the violation of their civil rights in the ’70s – the impact of his bravery and courage changed history and still inspires people to this day.
Milk follows the final eight years of Harvey Milk’s life, from him turning 40 to his assassination at aged 48 through his own accounts of the events that he’s dictating onto tape to be played in the event of his assassination. Choosing to start the movie on the day that Milk (Sean Penn) turns 40 is a great choice as this allows us to start from the point where he meets his great love, Scott Smith (James Franco). It would have been an easy, and poor choice, to look into Milk’s childhood to determine the events that moulded him into the man he became. Ultimately, though, it was his relationship with Smith that lead to him leaving New York for San Francisco and to be open about his sexuality.
Faced with bigotry and prejudice upon opening a camera store, in the Castro district of San Francisco, Milk spearheads a movement to create a gay-friendly community that turns out to have financial and political power. A storeowner that expressed his disgust at Milk’s sexual orientation is later seen benefiting immensely from the increase in business he has received following the district becoming the centre of the gay community. We also see gay bars cease to serve Coors, due to them refusing to hire gay delivery drivers, leading to Coors no longer being the number one beer in San Francisco and subsequently overturning their stance. However, it’s the unfair and frequently violent treatment from the police that leads Milk to publicise the injustices and run for a seat as a city supervisor.
Having recruited assistants in the form of opera-loving art student, Danny Nicolletta, Harvard graduate Jim Rivaldo, Dick Pabich and Dennis Perone, Milk’s early attempts to run for city supervisor prove to be unsuccessful, as he narrowly misses out on being elected. It’s the recruitment of Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), though, that proves to be Milk’s best move as Jones turns out to be his strongest asset. Another strong asset is Alison Pill’s Anne Kronenberg who has the experience of running a campaign and gets Milk the nomination he needed to achieve success. Milk perseveres at the expense of his relationship with Scott and is finally elected. It’s from here that Milk starts to be able to have an effect, politically, as the first openly gay man elected to office in America.
The performances throughout are excellent, with some cast members’ performances bordering on the phenomenal – Sean Penn whose, second Academy Award for Best Actor is thoroughly deserved and I haven’t seen Emile Hirsch better than this. Not that you’d expect any less from Penn, who is undoubtedly one of the finest actors working today. James Franco is also excellent as Milk’s great love, Scott Smith.
At the end of the movie it shows you pictures of the people that a selection of the actors played; the similarities are eerie. Penn seems to have mastered Milk’s mannerisms, charm and look brilliantly. Josh Brolin is almost identical in look to Dan White as is Denis O’Hare to Senator John Briggs.
I’ve found Gus Van Sant’s previous output hit and miss. There have been interesting moments in most of his previous work, excluding the excruciating experience of Last Days. I’d go as far to say that Milk is his finest movie to date. Assisted greatly by Dustin Lance Black’s brilliant script, thoroughly deserving of its academy award, Van Sant creates a well-paced and thoroughly interesting movie that does the subject matter justice. At times it feels as though you’re there with Milk at the marches and in his offices, because of the way the movie is shot, which is very effective. The look of the movie is also fantastic; the recreation of Castro Cameras store being one of the highlights.
Unfortunately, the transfer to Blu-ray is really quite average and it’s safe to say that this isn’t going to be one of those movies to show off your system. The extras are quite thin on the ground; with just over half an hour’s worth of documentaries and a handful of deleted scenes. In fairness, the documentaries are quite interesting and well worth a watch – it’s just a shame that there’s no word from Penn.
Overall, I’d say that the movie’s a must see even though the Blu-ray release is pretty weak. It really is a shame that the disc doesn’t do the film and subject matter justice.