a compelling portrait of a man determined to give us hope
Every once in a while, there comes along a film that reminds you that the rights that we take for granted today are thanks largely to the sheer courage of others who, in times not that long ago, fought for our social and political freedom and all too often, paid for it with their lives. Well this is one such film; one that sees Gus Van Sant return
to the narrative stage to detail a compelling portrait of a man determined to give us hope.
That man was Harvey Milk and in this riveting biopic Van Sant charts the life, times and death of the man who became the first openly gay American to be elected to public office. It opens with Milk embracing his 40th birthday, along with the body of boyfriend to be Scott Smith. Two years later, they leave New York for the emerging San Francisco scene and it is here that the key milestones in Milk's career are covered. From the opening of his Castro Street camera shop, through to his fourth successful attempt to gain political office, to his campaign against the rise of the anti-gay movement lead by Anita Bryant and heated encounters with California State Senator John Briggs. Only in detailing such, this work goes beyond the tragic events of November 1978 and the murder of Milk, alongside Mayor George Moscone at the hands of disgruntled former colleague Dan White, to present an informative 'what happened next' conclusion, one that notes White's infamous 'twinkie defence,' shockingly light sentence and subsequent suicide, together with the achievements of those close to Milk who continued his fight for social justice thereafter.
Sean Penn as Milk is not just superb in the role but aided by a prosthetic nose is uncannily Milk's double, right down to the poignant scene in which Milk recorded a tape in fear of assassination, words that come to frame the films' pivotal scenes. That Penn is surrounded by a stellar cast, almost goes without saying and whilst Emile Hirsch as activist and later NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt founder Cleve Jones and Alison Pill as lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg provide the political backbone of the piece, amongst others it has to be said, it is Diego Luna as troubled boyfriend Jack Lira and Josh Brolin as Dan White who provide its emotional meltdown. And yet it is James Franco as Scott Smith who comes closest to stealing Penn's spotlight, hereby delivering a heartbreaking portrayal of a man increasingly unable to connect with the laid-back bearded hippie he had fallen in love with.
Seamlessly intercut with archive footage of the period that takes you back to '70s styled San Francisco, Van Sant has delivered a work that paints a vivid picture of a man fighting for gay rights in an era of intense opposition. That Milk was a man who could effortlessly rally people to a cause, be it gay or otherwise, is a documented part of history. Yet what comes across then, as now, are Milk's words of love, compassion, but above all else - hope. That this captivating biopic is as much a testament to the life and times of the Mayor of Castro Street, as it is a work of hope, marks a film that is not only immensely moving, but somewhat uncanny, given it premiered at a time when America is basking in the hope of a better tomorrow in the form of a new President, only for voices of prejudice still to be heard. And to that end, we still need to give 'em hope; hope to that poor runaway kid from San Antonio, hope to us all. A powerful and not to be missed work.
premiere 28.Oct.2008 San Francisco | US GR 26.Nov.2008 | UK GR 23.Jan.2009
starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Joseph Cross,
Brandon Boyce, Lucas Grabeel, Denis O'Hare, Howard Rosenman, Kelvin Yu, Jeff Koons