Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk is the portrait of an incredible man, one who fought for what was right at a time when most people weren't even prepared to accept his lifestyle, much less listen to what he had to say. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to major public office in the United States. He was elected as a city supervisor of San Francisco in 1977. He preached against the anti-homosexual laws being passed at the time, and even challenged his enemies to public debates. His position was that denying anyone their civil liberties was un-American ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" he quotes from the Declaration of Independance). His fiery speeches and charming personality helped to put a face on the gay movement in the 1970's. His assassination at the hands of Dan White, another city supervisor with whom Harvey had butted heads, made him into an icon of gay culture. He had only served 11 months in office.
We first meet Harvey (Sean Penn) in 1970 as he picks up a young man named Scott (James Franco) in a subway station in New York City. It's Harvey's 40th birthday, and he's unhappy that he's still living in the closet and has not done anything he feels he can be proud of. Scott suggests that Harvey needs a "new scene" with new people and friends, so they move to the burgeoning gay scene of Castro Street in San Francisco, California. He opens up a camera store, and soon becomes a sort of rallying point for all gays in the area as Harvey pressures the intolerant businesses around into acceptance of the gay lifestyle. The way he does this is simple, the stores that are good to the gays are supported with business, and the ones that aren't, aren't. Before long Harvey gets caught up in more widespread gay activism and decides to run for office, with Scott as his campaign manager, but is defeated. He runs again the next year, and is again defeated. He runs for a different office, and is again defeated. But Harvey never loses hope. Hope for a better place, a more tolerant America, and is determined to fight until it comes true.
He runs into the widespread opposition of people like California Senator John Briggs, and singer Anita Bryant, who both campaigned for laws that allow open discrimination against gays. Harvey appeals to these "Christians" (I use quotation marks because no real Christian would ever oppose anyones civil rights) that they're teaching their children a lesson of hatred and intolerance of anyone different than themselves, both things that Christianity preaches against. Much of the movie is in showing how Harvey always fought the good fight, often to the deterioration of his personal relationships, and refused to accept anything that wasn't equal treatment. Dan White (Josh Brolin) is one of Harvey's co-supervisors, and is at first accepting of Harvey, even inviting him to his sons christening. But when Harvey doesn't back him on an issue that Dan thought he would, Dan turns on Harvey, becoming openly hostile and uncooperative. Harvey thinks Dan might be a closeted gay who's challenged by Harvey's open lifestyle (the movie never gives the audience any reason to think this, but just presents it as one of Harvey's theories).
Harvey was not a difficult person to like, and Sean Penn's performance makes him actually quite lovable. He's all smiles and upbeat attitude as he discusses many of the same issues that Dr. Martin Luther King had been fighting for 15 years before him ("All men are created equal, that's America. Love it or leave it" he says). Sean Penn would not have been on my shortlist to play Harvey, he's not exactly ever been known for his cheery nature. But he's phenomenal here, always showing the intelligence and empathy deep within Harvey, but not ever letting Harvey's anger at the widespread prejudice get too far below the surface. It's a remarkable performance, and much deserving of the recent Oscar it won. Also delivering solid performances (but none that are on the level of Penn's) are Brolin, Franco, and Emile Hirsch as one of Harvey's most loyal and vocal friends. It's nice to see that the colossal flop of Speed Racer didn't ruin Hirsh's career, he's a talented young actor and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future.
Finally, I want to applaud Gus Van Sant's use of archival footage in Milk. He seamlessly integrates the real life announcement of Milk's assassination into the first few minutes of the movie. There's also a deeply moving archival shot of a sea of people holding candles to mourn Harvey's passing. Reportedly more than 30,000 people lining the streets of the city, like an endless line of stars shining just for Harvey. It's a beautiful and poetic moment that Van Sant doesn't cut short.