In 1977 Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States of America, only to be murdered a year later by his fellow but thwarted politician Dan White. Focusing relentlessly on the last eight years of Harvey Milk’s life, Sean Penn gives a genuinely astonishing performance which deserves both its resounding hype and numerous nominations for Best Actor. Carefully treading the line between period camp and ugly stereotype Penn gives an excellent portrayal of the lonely middle aged homosexual, forced to spend the first decades of his life in a tawdry, closeted limbo before he moves to San Fransisco with his young boyfriend, played well here by James Franco. On arrival the newly out and open Milk finds his niche at political organisation and mobilisation, having adopted a new hippy outlook and accompanying appearance.
Following the brutal murder of a local gay man and the police department’s complete indifference these new talents are turned towards gaining his election to the city’s board of supervisors, providing the film’s latter division into his repeated election attempts and the ensuing battle against the pernicious Proposition 6. The proposition proposed banning both homosexuals and, more sinister yet, those who ‘supported’ or ‘enabled’ them from working in California’s public schools. It is in these later stages, where he is forced to revert to the more acceptable and ‘closeted’ appearance he had in New York to acquire electability, that Milk encounters his eventual murderer. Josh Brolin does a superb job of making Dan White an accessible character, if not a sympathetic one, even as his appearance on screen inherently ratchets up the tension as the brutal climax approaches. Other performances of note include the ironic portrayal by the openly gay Denis O’Hare of the bigoted state senator who proposes Proposition 6 and Emile Hirsch as one of the disparate pieces of social driftwood that Milk manages to forge into an effective campaign team, operating from his nominal camera business on Castro Street.
Although the concentration is on gay characters and issues, with a gay man (Gus Van Sant) directing, any assumption that this is a ‘gay’ film with no appeal to a mainstream audience would be completely misplaced. Despite the fortunate timing of the film as a coincidental riposte to the passing of Proposition 8 in California this is not a film concerned with a distinct political agenda, but rather with asserting the fundamental right of people to be themselves. The film deftly avoids any overt political grandstanding, with throwaway references to Milk’s previous membership of the Republican Party and struggles with the Democratic hierarchy. More remarkable is one of the many excellent uses of documentary footage wherein the future President and Patron Saint of the American New Right Ronald Reagan throws his support behind Milk’s coalition. Indeed, the use of documentary footage is superbly done throughout the film and serves as a further reminder of the immediacy of the issues involved in the film, more than thirty years after Milk’s murder.