I meant to write a review of MILK when I came home from the Raleigh premiere last night, but I didn't have the words. All I had was a wordless sense of "Wow". I figured it was late and that I just needed to get some sleep. So I went to bed and hoped to feel more inspired in the morning.
I feel inspired, all right. But it is still difficult to write an objective review. MILK was more than the story of a little-known (to many) political figure who was murdered by a co-worker. It is the story of a hero--a man who was willing to be himself at all costs, even death. Even if you know nothing about Harvey Milk, you will come away from the movie understanding why he is the Martin Luther King of the gay rights movement.
The movie opens with a montage of black-and-white news footage. As the opening credits roll, we see gay people being handcuffed and herded into paddy wagons. The silent footage is eerily reminiscient of both the African-American civil rights movement and the Nazi roundup of "undesirables". This is followed by the audience's introduction to Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), who is narrating a tape to be played only in the event of his assassination.
The opening sets the tone for the movie, reminding us of how far we have come as a country. It is easy to forget--if we ever knew it--that as early as 30 years ago, America was a frightening place to be if you were openly gay*. The movie does a good job of demonstrating the progress that has been made--and how far we still have to go. The repeal of laws protecting gay people from job and housing discrimination at the polls in Miami-Dade, and the gay community's response, is strongly parallel to the passage of Proposition 8 in California in this past election. I had to wonder if the latter result would have been different had MILK been released--and widely distributed--prior to the election.
Despite this heavy subject matter, though, MILK is not a somber movie. Penn portrays Milk as a softspoken guy whose personal desire to be free to live as himself grew into something larger than he ever expected it to be. Milk's response to homophobic statements was often to joke about them. When Dan White (Josh Brolin) remakrs angrily that "you people" don't care about the need to support a family because gay men can't reproduce, Milk replies, "No, but we've been trying for years." Thanks to moments like these, the movie is as entertaining as it is inspiring.
Penn also does a good job of showing the underlying passion in Milk's character. Throughout the movie, we see Milk's evolution from a businessman to a politician to a leader of a movement. His self-acceptance is consistent through the film and it is clear that he wants to stop other people from suffering. Yet he is unaware of just how much influence he has over other people's lives. One of the film's most touching sequences involves a young man who calls Milk rather than commit suicide. Milk's simple words: "You are not wrong, you are not sick, and G-d doesn't hate you." inspire the boy to find a way out of his situation. It is implied, but never directly stated, that the conversation influences Milk to continue pursuing a city supervisor seat even though he feels burned out.
Penn's portrayal of Harvey Milk allows the viewer to understand exactly who Milk was. Milk's commitment and passion are inspiring, especially his selflessness. In one of the movie's most suspenseful scenes, Milk receives a death threat just as he is about to take the stage. His staff tries to convince him to bow out, but he refuses. "I have to," he says.
The supporting actors also do an excellent job. James Franco is perfect as Harvey Milk's lover, Scott Smith, who both wants Milk to succeed and wants him to himself so that their relationship can thrive. Scott's growing dissatisfaction with his boyfriend's growing obsession with politics is an emotional subplot to the main action of the film.
If Sean Penn's Harvey Milk is inspiring, Josh Brolin's Dan White is terrifying. Most viewers know from the beginning that White will eventually murder Milk, making every scene with them together suspenseful. But Brolin does not portray White as a monster. Instead, he evolves--or rather, devolves--from an earnest, if smug, believer in traditional families to an unbalanced psychopath. When Milk initially takes a seat as a city supervisor, White tries to make nice, going as far as inviting Milk to his son's christening. But White's "politics-as-usual" stance clashes with Milk's insistence on doing what he believes to be right, and as White loses more and more ground to Milk he becomes frustrated. The most chilling scene is not the murder scene itself, but a scene set a few months earlier. A heavily intoxicated White appears at Milk's birthday party; he continues to drink while he talks to Milk. This scene clearly demonstrates the beginning of the mental breakdown that resulted in Milk's death.
In addition to the terrific characterization, the film moves at a quick pace. The only real criticism I have is that the beginning was a little bit too quick--the film moves in a mater of minutes from Harvey Milk' and Scott Smith's meeting in 1970 to them living together in San Francisco, and several years go by rapidly until we get to the political arena, which is the heart of the movie. However, anything lost due to this rapid beginning is more than made up for by the passion, conviction, and inspiration that was Harvey Milk.
MILK is playing for a limited time at the Rialto Thatre in Raleigh, NC. It has opened in other select theatres across the country.