This briskly paced biographical film that conveys the kind of documentary “it is happening now” that so often accompanies great filmmaking begins with the movie’s main subject, Harvey Milk, feeling despondent on his fortieth birthday.
“I’ve accomplished nothing,” Sean Penn, playing Milk, relates with a brutally self-appraising sadness. In the keen hope that he can change that situation Milk embarks from his New York City base to San Francisco.
Milk takes another significant step by launching his own business, a camera shop on Castro Street in the heart of the city by the bay’s homosexual district.
In breaking down barriers for the gay population, Milk reversed a trend that was marching in the opposite direction in the wake of homophobic ballot measures afflicting other cities and counties throughout America.
The most publicized and fiercely combative ballot measure campaign occurred in Miami’s Dade County. Popular singer and former Miss Oklahoma and Miss America runner-up Anita Bryant led the campaign to overturn Dade County’s ordinance banning discrimination against homosexuals.
One of Bryant’s most symbolically hateful messages that was repeated frequently was to passionately kiss her husband at political rallies while announcing, “This is how heteros do it!” An operative postscript is that Bryant and her husband divorced not long after their conspicuous displays of marital harmony.
Harvey Milk, who was rapidly defining himself as a vigilant campaigner for gay political rights as well as a mentor of many young homosexuals throughout the nation, took acute note of the rising tide of bigotry.
Just as Milk was seeking to build a political base in San Francisco on behalf of anti-discrimination policies against gays and other elements of the citizenry, he saw a sweeping homophobic tide develop in California. The operative measure was a 1978 initiative sponsored by Senator John Briggs of then overwhelmingly conservative Orange County in Southern California.
Milk, who had developed a political base in his district that enabled him to be elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, successfully took on the forces of hate that sought to bar gays from serving as teachers and other areas where they could use their influence to allegedly spurn America’s Judaic- Christian value structure. This was a point that Anita Bryant and supporters untiringly raised in Florida.
The film’s point-counter personal confrontation arrives when Milk clashes with youthful Irish Catholic Supervisor Dan White. When a volatile, heavily drinking White quits his seat, then seeks to be re-appointed to it immediately thereafter, he blames Milk and San Francisco’s popular liberal Mayor George Moscone for a rebuff when the issue was decided only after conscientious legal analysis.
Sean Penn, and Josh Brolin who recently starred as George Bush in “W,” are thoroughly professional, eternally believable in a see-saw relationship that goes from a friendship of sorts at one point to assassination when the erratic former supervisor fires on and kills both Milk and the city’s mayor.
Gus Van Sant moves the film along at a superb clip. The script by Dustin Lance Black sharply delineates the characters and the times.
“Milk” reaches a milestone with the footage of the candlelight memorial vigil held for the slain mayor and supervisor. It is a sharply contrasting point, underscoring the forces of community support contrasted by the earlier revealed elements of hate articulated by Anita Bryant and Senator John Briggs.
In terms of the important topic covered, that of discrimination and its impact on a segment of the populace subjected to it with consistent ugliness for years, along with the influence of one man in alliance with others who chose to fight back, “Milk” is one of the most important films Hollywood has undertaken in years.