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Wednesday 08 April 2009

Review: Brilliant, tender Milk

Posted in: Movies
By Jay Bennie - 29th January 2009


Yes, it's official: Sean Penn's performance as groundbreaking American gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk is superb.

In fact, almost everything about Gus van Sant's biopic Milk is quite superb. I'll run through ticking the boxes in a moment, but firstly a quick history note.

In the late 1970s gay men in the USA and other western countries like New Zealand were continuously persecuted and prosecuted for being willful perverts, lawbreakers and destroyers of society. Just because of their sexual orientation and whom they loved and lusted with. Think of the kind of excesses currently emblematic of eastern Europe and the Middle East and you get the picture.

Harvey Milk gravitated to San Francisco, started a small business in the burgeoning gay ghetto of the Castro, became a gay rights activist, rose to become what we in New Zealand would call a city councilor and was shot dead, along with the city's mayor, by a disillusioned, highly Christianised, ex-cop and fellow 'councillor.'

Milk's charisma and high profile as the USA's first elected openly gay city official drew other politically aware gays to him and some of the USA's most fundamental initiatives for equal rights and against HIV and AIDS sprang from his associates.

Now let's tick those boxes. The recreation of late 1970s gay San Francisco, at least through the eyes of one who first spent time there in the early 80s, is immaculate, from the sexual attitudes to the reconstruction of Castro Street and its environs. From the moustaches to the streetcars, everything about Milk looks and feels absolutely right. Even the TV clips of anti-gay campaigners such as the grotesque Anita Bryant, are excellent, as are the portrayals of the religious right.

The characters are spot on in a gently rendered warts and all kind of way. There is lechery but it's not gratuitous. There are few women but the Castro was always predominantly a gay men's space. There is homophobia but it seems to be realistically presented, sometimes quite subtly. And there is heaps and heaps of good writing and truly exceptional acting.

Milk has only one minor flaw. At heart it's a story of how two men of wildly differing backgrounds and outlooks came to be on a collision path that would see one of them shot dead and the other eventually commit suicide. So I would have liked to have seen more of the background, and more deeply into the head space, of Milk's killer, Dan White. But that's a minor quibble.

Penn, as Harvey Milk is superb. And maybe it's a sign of the times that I have yet to see any of those tired old "what it was like as a straight actor having to kiss and romp around with another man" media stories about him. He is by turns introspective, bewildered, angry, determined, exhausted, sexual, caring, aggressive and charming. To have survived in the rough and tumble of San Francisco sexual and city politics Milk must have been all those things and more. Penn's Milk is so compelling, engaging and likable, that, although we know how it all ends, we can't believe that this man is going to die. At last night's advance screening to around 200 glbt people we all reacted with deep emotion when his death, beautifully filmed by van Sant, inevitably happened.

If you want to experience a powerful piece of movie making with a strong message but remarkably devoid of kant, if you want to appreciate what it was like being homosexual and a gay activist in the '70s (and what was true there was largely true here), and if you want to understand why Milk is still revered in San Francisco and further afield, you must see Milk. In the unlikely event that this portrayal of Harvey Milk's life and death does not move you, van Sant's ploy, in the early closing credits, of anchoring the movie portrayals back to the real people, should at least make you think.

Dir: Gus van Sant
Starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin
Paramount Pictures. 2hrs 15mins.

Jay Bennie - 29th January 2009