The story of Harvey Milk (1930-1979), the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the USA, has been told before in documentary form. That was The Times of Harvey Milk, Robert Epstein's Oscar-winning film from 1984, which receives a prominent thank-you in the end credits of Milk. (Some of the archive footage in Milk comes from the earlier film.) A quarter of a century later, instead of being a period piece, this story seems more relevant than ever. Milk campaigned against Proposition 6, which would have repealed employment laws preventing discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. In 2009, the same state (California) voted to uphold Proposition 8, which outlaws gay marriages. In the film, one young character from another state (Minnesota) is threatened with being sent to a camp to “fix” him. Sexual reorientation camps are still a threat to many a gay youngster today. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Gus Van Sant’s film, written by Dustin Lance Black, begins with archive footage of the announcement of the fatal shootings of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber) by Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). The rest of the film is a flashback leading up to this point, with the slightly awkward framing device of Milk dictating into a tape recorder, the tape to be played in the event of his assassination. Then we go back to 1970. Milk picks up Scott (Scott Smith) and confesses that, on the cusp of forty, he has done nothing he can be proud of.
The film covers Milk’s early career, setting up a store in the Castro Street area of San Francisco, despite opposition from the local God Squad. A turning point comes when the local Teamsters call on the gay community which has built up in the area to help in a boycott of Coors Beer. Realising the power that a minority group can have, Milk decides to stand for Supervisor, speaking on behalf of not just gay people but for all minority groups in the city.
Aimed at a more mainstream audience than some of his more recent films – which means among other things that it’s not in Academy Ratio and Van Sant restricts his Béla Tarr-like long steadicam shots until near the end - Milk doesn’t dumb down its issues. Nor does it feel the need to softpedal, as Philadelphia did, to accommodate a supposedly ignorant and homophobic straight audience. There’s no explicit sex in this film, but the film is unapologetic about including scenes of kissing and some male nudity. It also doesn’t spare the church and such figures as Anita Bryant (who appears in archive footage) and Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare), spearheads of bigoted campaigns that Milk fought against.
The film doesn’t make Harvey Milk out to be a saint. He’s clearly an opportunist, as many successful politicians have to be, and his personal life is often in disarray, with tragic consequences for one lover. He presented himself as speaking for all minorities, not just gays, and other minorities may demur at such potentially presumptuous advocacy claims. Penn portrays Milk brilliantly, completely losing himself in the role. It’s an open question whether he should have beaten Mickey Rourke (for The Wrestler) to the Oscar. (I would have given Rourke the award myself.) Maybe Penn benefited from an Academy possibly making amends for their shutout of Brokeback Mountain, but his is clearly an award-calibre performance. A well-chosen supporting cast is led by Josh Brolin as the tightly-wound – and quite probably deeply closeted – Dan White, Emile Hirsch as Clem White and Alison Pill as Milk’s campaign manager Anne Kronenberg. If you look closely, some of the real-life figures in this story make brief appearances in the film.
Van Sant and his DP Harris Savides evoke the look of a film made at the time these events were set, with grainy visuals mixed with some even grainier archive footage. Milk is also extremely well edited by Elliot Graham, though my major issue with the film is that it tends to run out of momentum in its second half, and subplots such as Milk’s relationship with Jack Lira (Diego Luna) are underwritten and don't have the impact they should have. But this is a moving, and still pertinent, story of a man who made a difference to a lot of people and ended his life as a martyr to his cause.
Milk is released by Momentum on a dual-layered PAL format DVD encoded for Region 2 only. It begins with trailers for The Young Victoria, Defiance and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.
The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced. As a say above, this is a grainier film than many made nowadays, with some even grainier archive film footage interspersed, also some contemporary video footage. But this is how it looked in a cinema, and the DVD transfer is faithful to Van Sant's and Savides's generally subdued colour scheme.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1. This isn't the most adventurous sound mix you'll ever hear, being mostly dialogue-driven and centre-channel. The surrounds tend to be used mainly for ambience and Danny Elfman's music score. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are included.
The extras begin with three short deleted scenes: “Recurring Dream” (1:42), “Jack Throws Pottery” (1:02) and “Harvey the Clown” (1:51). As usual, it's easy to see why these were cut out from what is not a short film to begin with.
Next up are three featurettes. “Remembering Harvey” (13:18) is about the man himself, by the originals of some of the characters in the film, such as photographer Danny Nicoletta, former campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, speechwriter Frank Robinson (also the writer of one of the novels that The Towering Inferno was based on) and others.
Hollywood Comes to San Francisco (14:29) is a more traditional making-of piece, with interviews with many of the principals, but oddly not Van Sant (though he can be seen in on-set footage). “Marching for Equality” (7:55) is a look at gay political activism in the city, featuring interviews with many people who were there at the time. The real Cleve Jones (played in the film by Emile Hirsch) talks about how he became an activist: he went on to create the memorial quilt for those who died in the AIDS pandemic.
The extras are completed by the UK trailer (1:08) and the longer international trailer (2:21).