Who was Harvey Milk? Well, before this film was released, I doubt that many had even heard of the man. He was a revolutionary in civil rights, and he was the first openly gay man elected to office. His career was cut short, however, when a depressed rival, Dan White, assassinated Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, and won two, including Best Actor (Sean Penn) and Best Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black).
The film plays as a kind of scrapbook of memories at first and begins with Harvey (Sean Penn) sitting at a dinner table telling his story should he be assassinated. Then we travel back where he met his first lover, Scott (James Franco, Pineapple Express). And in less than 45 seconds, we see the two jumping around in bed. Okay, let’s pause there. Since when did any viewer want to see bed hopping between two strangers? Never, I believe. I can totally see the merit when they got into a deep, meaningful relationship, but cruising is one of those things that is not only frowned upon in the public’s eye, but also in the film critic’s.
After moving from New York to San Francisco (specifically the well known Castro Street), Harvey decides that the government needs some help in that discrimination area. People like Anita Bryant are pushing hard to ban rights for gay people. She’s in for trouble. After losing four times, the man Harvey Milk finally gets elected to office. His rival, a depressed Dan White who is having trouble with dealing with a gay man, decides to do the worst thing possible and assassinate Milk and Mayor Moscone (Vincent Garber). Dan White was sentenced with manslaughter because of the “Twinkie Defense”. He served five years in prison, and the backlash of what little time he got in prison created the White Night riots, the most violent riots for gay rights in history.
The film is rather light for a dark subject. It’s filled with several funny moments and very endearing moments. Sean Penn, who previously won the Oscar for Mystic River has been in so many dramatic films where he grimaces, it’s a nice change to see him smile. .But the fact is when you watch the film, it’s not really Penn, and it seems more like the spirit of Milk. Dustin Lance Black (writer for the Showtime series Big Love), the writer, manages to keep a good consistency between flash back and present time, but as the film progresses to where he is in office, it gets a little lost in that story telling mode, as if trying to find what to do next. Josh Brolin (2007 Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men) makes a great Dan White, almost the sympathetic Judas of Jesus Christ Superstar. You don’t feel sympathy exactly, but more empathy. Gus Van Sant directs the film with a very breezy ease, making the marches and riots seem like the history and not the cinema. A very good film that shows the power of a man’s dream. I personally think that Penn won the Best Actor Oscar because of the then recent Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. Had that not happened, I think it would have gone to Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.