Charting an historic era for gay rights – and hence civil rights – in the USA, Gus Van Sant’s stirring biopic Milk tells the inspiring story of titular gay rights activist and erstwhile San Francisco political mover Harvey Milk. Set in an era when homosexuals were equated with paedophiles(?!) by the conservative sector of society, Milk reminds us how far we have come as a society.
Harvey is coaxed from a closeted life in 70s New York City to far more liberal San Francisco where his life takes a turn towards the dramatic. Helping draw together disparate groups of gay men and women Harvey and friends help create a strong sense of community which they utilise in the fight to procure basic human rights in the face of snowballing national opposition. You get the feeling that if the gay rights movement was going to find traction anywhere in the USA it would be in San Francisco and yet it was still a long hard fight which eventually saw Harvey elected as the first openly gay person in major public office as a San Francisco city supervisor. In his year in office Harvey manages to achieve an admirable amount of legal and social change and is eventually assasinted for his efforts alongside his supportive Mayor, George Moscone.
Milk also charts much of Harvey’s personal life through this period of political and social activism, highlighting the fact that Harvey is an average Joe with his own set of relationship problems who fights passionately for his personal beliefs. There is a lot to admire about Harvey: his tenacity and faith in the face of stiff and often violent opposition; his ability to enjoy the life he has chosen to follow and appreciate the people with whom he has thrown in his lot despite the inherent hardships this lifestyle entails. Regardless of what you think of homosexuality you can’t help but appreciate the battle for justice which this film encapsulates in the life of Harvey Milk. Gay or straight; black, brown or white; male or female – all people deserve the chance to live in world free of violence and prejudice, and with the opportunity to make a life for themselves.
I suspect that I will be in the minority with some of my feelings about the production of the film. I felt that Van Sant milked the emotional value of the subject matter (forgive the pun) more than was necessary. Perhaps this was due to his close sense of connection to the subject matter, but I usually find his hand a little lighter on the tiller as in 2007s beautifully meditative ode to youth – Paranoid Park. Sean Penn walked away from this project with his second Academy Award for best actor and this is somewhat how I felt his performance was played – with an eye partially on the Oscar, reminiscent of his performance in I Am Sam. For me the stars of this film were James Franco as Harvey’s initial lover and fellow activist Scott Smith, and Emile Hirsch as young political protégé Cleve Jones. Both deliver unselfconscious performances which don’t seem to focus as much on playing a gay person so much as embodying the ‘lesser lights’ who helped shape Harvey Milk and his achievements.
Retelling the costly successes of another era Milk makes for appealing viewing with a measure of motivation to revisit our history. Hopefully understanding the struggles of former generations will stir us to stand up for our values and the rights of the oppressed in our sphere and appreciate the cost of the relative freedoms we live with today.
DVD Info + Special Features
This single disc edition of Milk is delivered in the usual widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 glory of today’s DVDs. Specials include a small piece about the man Harvey Milk and a much more interesting general look at the San Francisco of the times in the Hollywood comes to San Francisco featurette. Interviewees include several of the actual people depicted in the film such as one of the driving forces behind the production Cleve Jones. We find out that Van Sant has included many of these people either in cameo roles in the film (e.g. Cleve Jones) or actually playing themselves (e.g. Teamster union organiser Allan Baird).
There are about three deleted scenes which are pretty negligible but overall this makes for a reasonably satisfying single disc release.
» Region 2,4 PAL
» 1.85:1 Anamorphic widescreen
» Languages: English, Castilian Spanish
» Subtitles: Castilian Spanish
» Dolby Digital 5.1
» Deleted scenes
» Remember Harvey
» Hollywood comes to San Francisco
» Marching for equality
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: M – Contains offensive language and sexual references.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Actors: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, & Alison Pill.
Dur: 123 min