"I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living." — Harvey Milk
The story of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk had a huge impact on me a few years ago when I first watched the Oscar-winning documentary about him, The Times of Harvey Milk. His is truly a stranger-than-fiction tale and is so full of inspiration, absurdity, and absolute heartache that it's somewhat surprising it has taken this long to create a feature-length dramatization of his life and death. I respect director Gus Van Sant's decision to memorialize and honor Harvey Milk with his movie Milk, and to my great relief, Van Sant and his exceptional ensemble cast have done Milk's story justice.
Milk picks up Harvey Milk's life when Milk (Sean Penn) meets one of the great loves of his life, Scott Smith (portrayed by James Franco) and decides to move from New York City to San Francisco. There, the two open a camera store in the heart of the Castro, a neighborhood with a rapidly growing gay population, and there Milk begins his life as a leader of the gay rights movement in the 1970s. After trying and failing twice, he is finally elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977, largely due to the support of the gay community. For the first time, it becomes apparent that the gay community could be a powerful one, and Milk often emphasizes this during his time in city hall. As the country's first openly gay man to be elected to public office, Milk brings the gay rights movement to the city's attention as much as possible, earning him admiration and support along with many enemies — including his ultimate enemy, fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). For more about this and my thoughts on it all, read more.
Dan White is a good ol' Christian boy who feels threatened by and resentful of Harvey Milk's success. Josh Brolin, who is fast becoming one of the most fascinating actors in Hollywood, simply morphs into this insecure and fearful man who gradually becomes unhinged. His fate and that of Harvey Milk are tragically linked in history forever, and frankly, it's disturbing to see Dan White brought to life on screen, especially after seeing all the actual footage of him in the documentary.
The rest of the cast is equally remarkable: Franco makes for a loving, sympathetic Smith, and Emile Hirsch is captivating as Milk's young activist protégé Cleve Jones. Allison Pill is always an undeniably strong presence on screen and her depiction of Milk's sole female team member, Anne Kronenberg, is no different. Diego Luna plays one of Milk's lovers, Jack Lira, with equal parts bright beauty and troubling instability. Most of all, Penn's portrayal of this charismatic, resilient, and good-humored pioneer will surely earn him some well-deserved accolades and awards.
This project is remarkably ambitious. There are so many intersecting aspects of Milk's career, activism, and personal life, it's enough to make one's head spin. Add to this Van Sant's decision to incorporate actual footage from the '70s into his dramatized story, and you've got yourself a crazy, giant puzzle to put together. But the actual footage is crucial in this case, consistently reminding us that though this seems like fiction at times — especially now, to modern audiences — this is a true story.
Interestingly, one "character" (so to speak), the outspoken fundamentalist Christian singer Anita Bryant, is not played by any actress (though at first glance I thought for sure it was Marcia Gay Harden). Instead, her entire part in Milk's story is shown through real footage — which only makes her behavior that much more staggering. This directorial choice seamlessly blends the reality of Harvey Milk's actual life with the staging of his life by the director and cast. Overall, I can’t express enough how much I applaud and admire Van Sant’s accomplishment here. It's a complicated and deeply emotional story, and the entire production — Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, the whole cast — carried a tremendous responsibility to get this thing right and the result is a dignified homage.
I highly recommend watching the documentary first, as there was an effervescence and a beautiful light to the real Harvey Milk that no actor, not even the great Sean Penn, can capture. Both the documentary and this new film may leave you speechless and/or weepy. But his is a worthwhile story to tell and if this grand-scale production with heavy-hitting actors and a talented director gets his story out there, all the better.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features