Two minutes into director Gus Van Sant’s moving account of the life and death of Harvey Milk, the gay activist turned politician, Sean Penn, in an amazingly accurate portrayal of the man, begins to tape-record a message that he says, “is only to be played in the event of my assassination.” “I fully realize,” he says, “that a person who stands for what I stand for makes himself a target.” The tape was made on Nov. 18, 1978. Nine days later, Milk’s prediction came true. Along with Mayor George Moscone, Milk was shot and killed by Dan White, who had been elected at the same time as Harvey Milk to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Using newsreel footage from the day of the shooting, Van Sant shows Dianne Feinstein, then the president of the Board of Supervisors, announcing the killing. The film uses similar news coverage from the period, enhancing the authenticity of the story, which has also been fully documented in Randy Shilts’s book, The Mayor of Castro Street  (1982). The film also gains accuracy by its similarity to the Academy-Award-winning documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984), which provided copious footage and a full account of his political career, his death and the reaction of the gay community and others at the time. Adding to the film’s realistic feel is the use of over-saturated color and dark shadows to evoke the urban realism of “Taxi Driver,” “Klute,” “The French Connection” and other films of the 1970s, such that one is sometimes unsure whether the shots of street life in the Castro District are taken from archival footage or have been re-created by Van Sant.
While the narrative often delves into Milk’s personal and sexual life, the film focuses on his arduous rise to political power in San Francisco. Beginning as an advocate for the rights of the gay community in his neighborhood, Milk evolves into a representative of many other neglected groups, like the elderly and members of labor unions; he wins over others to his support by his bold rhetoric and self-deprecating wit. Open about his sexual orientation but aware of many people’s discomfort with his lifestyle, he develops a teasing opening line for his speeches: “I’m Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.” His greatest victory comes in early 1978 when he leads a campaign against Proposition 6, a ballot initiative that would have mandated the firing of homosexuals, and anyone who supported them, from teaching jobs in California.
The film documents the strength of support for the measure with footage of anti-gay-rights celebrity Anita Bryant speaking for the measure on national television and Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw and others reporting on the success of similar measures in many other municipalities across the country. Despite such moves elsewhere, and against all expectations and predictions, Proposition 6 is defeated and Harvey Milk emerges as a political force to be reckoned with. As the film’s Milk says to Mayor Moscone: “A homosexual with power. That’s scary.”
Indeed, his success and influence pose a threat to Dan White, a retired police officer and, to all appearances, a clean-cut Irish Catholic family man, who feels intimidated by his fellow supervisor’s political popularity and media coverage. Eventually White begins to suspect that Milk has betrayed him in political maneuvering. Josh Brolin’s low-key but occasionally creepy portrayal perfectly conveys White’s frustration, confusion and anger, making this man’s story almost as fascinating as Milk’s and hinting at a dark labyrinth of motives that drove White to commit murder in broad daylight in the City Hall.
The film presents Milk’s life and brutal death as another all-too-familiar story of someone who dares publicly to challenge the status quo and to battle the ingrained fears and prejudices of his time, which leads to an almost inevitable conclusion of martyrdom for one’s cause. Yet it also vividly documents the overarching message of hope that Milk proclaimed, even on several occasions when he encounters political defeat or witnesses anti-gay violence on the part of the San Francisco police and others. When the inhabitants of the Castro neighborhood in 1977 threaten to riot after hearing that a gay-rights ordinance has been defeated in Anita Bryant’s Dade County, Fla., Milk grabs a bull-horn and shouts, “I know you’re angry! I’m angry!” He leads them in a march to the steps of City Hall. In his speech from the steps, he declares, “Anita Bryant did not win tonight. Anita Bryant brought us together.” He speaks of the need to “create a national gay force.” He then refers to “the young people…who are hearing her on television telling them they are sick, telling them that they are wrong, that there is no place in this great country for them.... I say, ‘We must give them hope.’”
“You gotta give them hope” becomes the slogan of Milk’s subsequent political and social battles, framing the gay community’s struggle for equal rights firmly within the tradition of the American promise of freedom and opportunity. At one rally in 1978, describing the struggle as “a fight to preserve your democracy,” he repeats Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal” and Emma Lazarus’s words about the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” concluding, “No matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words from the Declaration of Independence…or the Statue of Liberty.” Appropriating even the conservative mantra of the times to his own purposes, he concludes, “That’s what America is. Love it or leave it.” His crusade is ultimately about freedom and hope for everyone.
Meeting the challenge of portraying a man whose physical appearance and speech patterns have been fully documented, Sean Penn departs completely from the brooding, macho persona he projected in “Dead Man Walking,” “Mystic River” and other films. Instead he assumes Milk’s high-pitched voice and sometimes fey gestures and mannerisms as a gawky, self-conscious and occasionally flamboyant crusader while revealing an inner life that alternates between anger and grief, defiance and celebration, paranoia and hopefulness. It is a complex portrait of one extraordinary man who, in life and in death, offered hope to millions of men and women.
“Milk ” is likely to enter the ranks of the few outstanding films that have chronicled the life—and often the death—of history’s heroes, everyone from Mahatma Gandhi and St. Thomas More to Erin Brockovich, Karen Silkwood and the freedom riders of Mississippi. Thanks to the film’s director, Gus Van Sant, its screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, and most of all to the extraordinary artist Sean Penn, the story of Harvey Milk is likely to inspire hope, understanding and courage for many generations to come.
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