A gentle, almost tender biopic of a man who spearheaded a revolution, Gus Van Sant’s Milk is appropriately itself a dichotomy. It’s an almost aggressively conventional film about a premise that could not be more foreign to mainstream cinema: the fight for gay civil rights.
With clean, economic storytelling, an efficient script and wonderfully grounded performances from its impressive cast, the film on the surface might not feel like anything special. Like dozens of awards-season projects before it, Milk is a competently-made bio of an extraordinary individual that pulls all the right heartstrings and hits all the right notes.
It’s not until you take a step back from the film that it hits you: This is the gayest major motion picture ever made.
From its sobering opening montage (news footage of gay bars being raided in the 1960′s) to the humbling final moments when thousands march in the deceased Harvey’s honor through San Francisco, Milk is an unapologetic, beautiful and affecting testament to the strength, warmth and complexity of gay men and women at a landmark time in gay rights history.
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk
The screen is rarely without a gay character. We see gay men cooking, lounging in bed, working, dancing, loving, squabbling, joking, driving one another nuts and supporting each other in the wake of tragedy. Though the conversations are overwhelmingly about discrimination against gays, there are numerous tender moments when we see these men not marching in the streets or shouting through bullhorns, but simply living their lives.
The anticipation leading up to the highly-buzzed film has mostly been about the fact that the story of Harvey Milk, a gay rights leader who was assassinated along with Mayor Geroge Moscone by a fellow city supervisor, was actually — impossibly — making it to the screen after nearly 40 years. But its real accomplishment is something different, and to me, unexpected: it gently but without hesitation takes the audience into the world of gay men in a way that no film ever has before.
Equal parts sweetness, melancholy and rage, it’s a wonderfully immersive, warts-and-all journey. Harvey and his friends aren’t perfect, but they’re not out to hurt anyone. They just want what’s fair. And it would be near impossible to walk out of this film without understanding that.
The approach works thanks mostly to the stellar performance of Sean Penn as Milk, a brassy New York Jew with an infectious grin and a rascally but harmless sense of humor (it’s not just any guy who can turn a line like "My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you" into a campaign catchphrase, least of all in 1974). Penn’s Milk is aggressively flirtatious, obnoxious, stubborn and shameless … which, by many accounts, is probably historically accurate.
He is also gentle, caring, intelligent and braver than you could imagine. He says "Here I am, and what of it?" There’s never a moment of hesitation, not a second that you don’t believe that he is doing what he truly believes to be right, and not a moment when Penn feels counterfeit or uncommitted to the role.
This isn’t about a gay man struggling to come to terms with himself, it’s about a gay man struggling to get the world to come to terms with him. And for that fact alone, this film is like no other that has come before it.