Milk is the account of Harvey Milk’s campaign to become San Francisco’s City Supervisor, gaining the first real grounds for the gay rights movement. The film is set in the culturally turbulent 1970’s, and spans a vast period showing Harvey Milk’s first initiation into politics, all the way up until his assassination. The film is entertaining, mentally as well as emotionally engaging and thought provoking.
The film is predominantly set in an area of California known as the “Castro” (after the intersection of 18th street and Castro Street, the central hub of the area). Established in 1845, this area was founded in Eureka Valley and for years housed a large population of private businesses and a large immigrant population. It wasn’t until the 1970s that this area became known as a LGBT community and was named “The Castro” This was not only the home of Harvey Milk but also the site of substantial discrimination and abuse towards the homosexual community, much of which stemmed from transgressions committed by local law enforcement.
The film is grounded firmly in a strong screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, which is delivered to the screen effectively by the filmmakers. Headed by director Gus Van Sant; creator of such works as Good Will Hunting, Drugstore Cowboy, and My Own Private Idaho.
The story is brought to life by Sean Penn’s brilliant portrayal of Harvey Milk. He brings a character that is both endearing and tenacious. His excellent performance is even enough to make up for his co-star, James Franco. Franco’s part comes off as uncharacteristically weak, not that his acting job is bad, his part just fails to impress while being surrounded by other far more interesting characters and far more talented actors which ultimately results in Franco’s part being disinteresting at best. With the exception of Franco, the supporting cast shines brightly, such as Denis O’hare as John Briggs and Joseph Cross as Dick Pabich. Just as important as the lead roles are in this film, the various cameos stand out and shine just as brightly; seeing as many of the original members of the gay movement, including the man who created the rainbow flag, participated on screen one way or another making the film a child of not just the filmmakers, but of the entire Castro area LGBT community.
The cinematography is commendable, displaying both expertise and creativity in an interesting collage of handheld and steady shots, both inter-cut with actual footage from the seventies into a staggering compilation that effectively conveys the film’s message. This usage of actual footage creates an impressive movie introduction. This short sequence passes within a relatively short amount of time but covers an immense amount of material and lends the mood that feeds the entire film. It does this through a combination of actual documentary footage and shots of Milk giving a voice recording, just hours before his assassination. The crafting of scenes such as this are what gives Milk its edge. The amount of expertise and efficiency used in the filmmaking of this movie make it entertaining, inspirational, and questionably thought-provoking at the same time.
As entertainment Milk holds up alongside the best; but as an actual documentary of a historical period it gives an intriguing though narrow view. It is a common attribute of Hollywood and indeed of America to gather around an underdog, and that is who Harvey Milk is; a factor that gives Milk a delightful heart to which anyone can relate and appreciate.