I’m going to be honest: the hardest part of this review series was when I decided to try to review Milk.
Here’s the thing: Milk is a very well-made movie. Gus Van Sant is perhaps one of my favorite directors. Dustin Lance Black’s script is very good. The cinematography and production design do an excellent job of evoking 1970s San Francisco. Sean Penn is perfectly cast as Harvey Milk, and the supporting cast, which includes Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones and Josh Brolin as Dan White, is strong. And as far as I can tell, it’s reasonably historically accurate.
But while I’m reasonably familiar with Harvey Milk’s life, I’m not enough of an expert to go into a full analysis here of how this movie does justice to it. So I’m limited to analyzing this movie as, well, a movie. And…I’m not sure I have much to say about it. Again, it’s very good. I absolutely recommend seeing it. But it does feel like a paint-by-numbers biopic at times. Furthermore, I find it more satisfying as a biopic than as an LGBTQ movie, specifically. Compared to a lot of other historical based LGBTQ films that I’ve seen, this one does a good job of showing the early gay rights movement and Harvey Milk’s role in it, but I can’t say that I connect with it much or find it very emotionally hard-hitting. This is somewhat surprising due to the subject matter.
The basic story of the film is going to be familiar to anyone who’s already familiar with Harvey Milk. Milk was the first openly-gay person elected to public office in California, having been elected as city supervisor in 1977. He was a notable gay rights figure who helped drive gay activism in the Castro district of San Francisco, and he was tragically assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White in 1978. The film shows Milk’s life from 1970 to 1978, as he moves to San Francisco, comes out of the closet, and finds his drive in gay activism. It covers his personal relationships as well as his unsuccessful political campaigns leading up to his successful run for supervisor. It also follows his contentious relationship with Dan White, who goes on to assassinate Milk along with Mayor George Moscone.
If I have any complaints about the story, it’s that I was left unsatisfied with how White’s actions and Milk’s death were contextualized against the gay rights struggle and Milk’s legacy. White was a mentally unstable person whose motivations were muddied by political differences with Milk and dissatisfaction with his own political career (prior to the assassinations, he had resigned and then unsuccessfully sought to get his job back). The movie does a good job of subtly showing White’s declining mental state, but by largely glossing over the aftermath of Milk’s death, it’s difficult to understand it in an LGBTQ history context.
Still, Milk a beautiful, well-cast movie that shows Harvey Milk’s development as an activist and politician, and Sean Penn brings a believable energy to the title role. It’s worth seeing at least once.