Gus Van Sant’s fairly conventional biopic of the first openly gay elected politician in the United States succeeds in overcoming genre limitations to create a powerful, compassionate film that’s up there with the director’s best work.
We first meet Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) at the turn of the 1970s, bemoaning his approaching 40s. ‘I haven’t done a thing I could be proud of,’ he tells his lover Scott Smith (James Franco). Our voyeurism is dealt with early on with a moving, matter-of-fact sex scene between the lovers before Harvey grows a beard and ponytail and heads west.
Arriving in San Francisco just as gay men are pouring into The Castro, the hitherto apolitical Milk becomes increasingly frustrated with the bigotry he encounters from the local police. With his camera shop as HQ he mounts three unsuccessful political campaigns before winning a seat on the San Francisco board of Supervisors.
Throughout the campaigning scenes, which culminate in Milk’s crusade against Proposition 6 (an attempt to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California’s schools), Van Sant weaves archive footage with drama so seamlessly that it requires several double takes to work out what you’ve just seen.
The film is at its weakest when sentimentality creeps in. A desperate phone call from a gay wheelchair-bound Midwestern teen feels shoehorned in to hammer home the importance of Milk’s mission, while Diego Luna reduces Harvey’s highly-strung later lover Jack Lira to irritating caricature.
Overall, though, Van Sant’s film is neither sentimental nor facile. We are never allowed to forget that the spectre of AIDS – a major setback for the gay community – is lurking just around the corner, and, while highlighting his charisma and humanity, the director acknowledges that Milk’s career may not have ended in glory had he lived (he was assassinated in 1978).
Notable for chronicling a significant period in the history of gay rights, ultimately the film works best as an intimate portrayal of a man motivated to action by his own keen sense of injustice. And it’s Sean Penn’s warm, relaxed performance in the title role that invests the film with much of its power.
General release from Fri 23 Jan.