Milk tells the true story of of the political career and influence of the first gay man to hold a high position in government, Harvey Milk. The film stars Sean Penn, who plays Harvey Milk, with supporting roles from James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna and Alison Pill. We travel back to the 1970s to see how Milk influenced the gay movement both in California and the entire country. Milk was easily the best film of the year so far, and unless Frost/Nixon blows it out of the water, it will more than likely win best picture of the year. If you are not a big time movie goer, you still need to find a way to watch Milk in theaters. Penn put on an amazing performance, so even if you can't stand him as a man, you will be incredibly impressed at his acting. Not being a huge Penn fan in years past, it wouldn't be fair of me to say it was his best acting role ever since his last film I saw was 21 Grams, but I'm sure it ranks highly nonetheless.
The film starts off in 1978, where Harvey is speaking into a recorder, talking about his life and political career. We are told the story from Harvey's point of view, and we are occasionally cut back to the scene of him sitting in his kitchen, talking into this recorder. Early in the film, Harvey's narration begins in 1970 where he meets the love of his life, Scott Smith (played by Franco), and they start their life together on famous Castro street in San Francisco, California. After moving in together, they opened a shop called "Castro Camera", where they were greeted by another local business owner who told them:
...there's man's law and god's law. The San Francisco police will be happy to enforce either.
This was the first sign of prejudice in the film, with many more scenes of hatred to come, especially from government officials and the San Francisco Police Department. Funny how many see San Francisco as a gay utopia, without understanding it took beatings, blood, threats, and deaths to get to the safety & warmth it now brings the gay community. Prior to his political career, Milk was an inspirational leader to the gay population in San Francisco. He made a list of gay-friendly shops which would thrive with business, while those not friendly to homosexuals would close down. After an all-out street beating from the SFPD against gay citizens on the charges of "blocking the sidewalk", Harvey made it so everyone in the community would wear whistles whenever they went outside; if a whistle blew, it meant someone was in danger and help was on the way.
In 1974, Harvey decided to run for one of the six open seats to the board of city supervisor, backed by the love and energy of Scott and a close group of supporters. Harvey lost, but not by much, coming up tenth out of 32 candidates who ran. A year later, he ran for the same position, getting more votes but losing another political race. Throughout the film, we see real news clips from the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite, discussing the gay movement in various parts of the country. We also see real news clips following the crusade of famous actress, Anita Bryant, who was set on getting any anti-discrimination laws towards homosexuals overturned. Anita Bryant helped get a law reversed in Dade County, Florida, which allowed for equal rights for purchasing property. She was one of the main contributing factors to Harvey's motivation to keep pursuing a position of government office.
Even though Harvey's 1976 campaign "Harvey Milk vs The Machine", it was the closest he came to victory. After the city re-positioned the district borders, it would be an easy victory for Harvey in 1977 because now all he had to do was win over the gay and hippie vote. Scott could not take another campaign, so he left Harvey's life, but not for good. Enter Jack Lira (played by Luna), who was Harvey's next boyfriend. Jack was more of a nuisance than anything else, but Harvey liked the fact that he didn't have to talk politics with Jack, and it was all just happy-go-lucky. For the 1977 campaign, Harvey hires Anne Kronenberg (played by Pill) to be his campaign manager. Kronenberg is a young lesbian woman, who had a solid track record of getting things done. Her first major victory for the campaign was getting an endorsement from The Chronicle newspaper, which strongly helps Harvey win the election in 1977.
After winning the position of Supervisor of City & County of San Francisco, Harvey had three main people to battle. He wanted to go head-on with Anita Bryant, had a weird relationship with fellow Supervisor, Dan White (played by Brolin), and needed to destroy State Senator John Briggs (played by Denis O'Hare) in public debates. Harvey was at ends with White because White seemed like he was an ally in private, but always opposed him in public. The main conflict in the film was based around Proposition 6, which was put on the ballot by Senator Briggs. This proposition asked for all homosexual teachers in public schools to be fired, including anyone that associated themselves with homosexuals. Sounds pretty ludicrous, and almost "believe it or not" status, other than the fact that we just had Proposition 8 pass in California in early November. Proposition 6 had lots of backing, and was leading heavily before Harvey decided to take the battled from San Francisco to all of California.
Shortly after Harvey's gay rights ordinance passed 10-1 in San Francisco, with Dan White being the only dissenting vote, Harvey wanted to battle Senator Briggs in public debates throughout California. With the help of his right-hand man, Cleve Jones (played by Hirsch), and Mayor of San Francisco George Moscone (played by Victor Garber) Harvey was able to get his wish. Not only did they debate in areas with lots of Milk supporters, but they also traveled to Orange County where Proposition 6 was heavily in the lead to pass. You may remember O'Hare from his role in Changeling earlier this year; he played his role as Briggs beautifully. You really wanted to hate Briggs, and I really liked how he stuttered in debates when Milk put the screws to him on an issue. The rest of the film is yours to experience without explanation; it gets much more powerful.
Brolin is slowly but surely making a big name for himself. Last year he had important roles in No Country for Old Men and American Gangster, and he followed it up with big roles in W. and now Milk. Emile Hirsch plays a very energetic and passionate political aide, helping Harvey in the latter stage of his career. I really like how he played this character, and he was also very good in Imaginary Heroes, where he had a larger part. Stealing the show was obviously Sean Penn. Keep in mind that playing this role perfectly meant always speaking with a very slight accent / lisp, and using effeminate mannerisms, in every scene. There were also several romantic scenes with lots of kissing and groping - not exactly the easiest thing for a straight man to deliver flawlessly, but Penn's performance did not waver. Many scenes are tear-jerkers, and I didn't really have to guess since the girl sitting next to me was evidence enough.
Milk was filled with emotion, strong feelings, and superb acting. Expect Sean Penn to win for best actor, and unless Frost/Nixon is more powerful, Milk will also win for best picture. I want you to see it...I want your family and friends to see it...I want their family and friends to see it. My only issue with the film is the release date. Why did the executives behind the film decide to release it at the end of November, rather than early October. It sincerely bothers me to think it was released now for "Oscar Season" rather than when it could have helped destroy Proposition 8 in California. Hopefully it was done for non-selfish reasons, but I went ahead and sent this to Focus Features to see if they have an answer. Should they respond, I will post it below.