How do you make a movie about Harvey Milk that is both artistic and historically accurate without making it look like a Civil War reenactment? Let one of the writers of Big Love pen the screenplay and get Gus Van Sant to direct it.
Milk, the new movie starring Sean Penn (and every hot male actor in Hollywood) is a labour of love right down to Milk’s stretched out white socks.
The film owes its authenticity to being shot on location in what was formerly Harvey Milk’s camera store; to using the actual bullhorn he used to rally the troops; and to the advice of Cleve Jones, who is portrayed by Emile Hirsch.
Jones, on the phone from Palm Springs, describes being on the set with his younger alter ego as “eerie at times. There were many moments that took my breath away and brought me back to my past so suddenly and with such clarity; it was a very odd experience.”
Using the recording Milk made before his death (in anticipation of his assassination) as a narrative device, Milk tells the story of how Harvey Milk moved with his partner Scott Smith (James Franco) to San Francisco from New York and became the first openly gay elected official in America.
Jones, who knew of the recording while Harvey was still alive, says the tape was more of a political last will and testament describing Milk’s wishes should he be assassinated, and not his life story as depicted in the film.
“I used to make fun of him that he wasn’t important enough to be assassinated,” Jones says. “He wasn’t a Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. He wasn’t enough of a threat to be killed. I was wrong.”
For an actor who has based his career on his machismo, Sean Penn seems to really enjoy playing a gay man. Penn bounces back and forth between serious politician and opera queen with subtle effete touches that give you a glimpse into Milk’s off-camera personality that’s missing from archival footage.
“I don’t know how he did it, I don’t know where he got it from but it was mind-boggling,” Jones says. “I know I’m on very safe ground when I say I’m speaking for all of us who remain alive who knew Harvey Milk, that Sean Penn became Harvey and it goes way beyond the mannerisms, he just becomes that character in the most extraordinary way. Even on the set while Sean was in makeup I found myself relating to him differently.”
All the performances are rock solid with the exception of Joseph Cross who, after Running with Scissors, really needs to give up portraying homosexuals. James Brolin as Dan White and Denis O’Hare as Senator John Briggs are the embodiment of pettiness.
What makes the rest of the cast so believable is that, however queeny they may act, they are still men, which a lot of movies about gay guys tend to forget.
The women in Harvey’s life have been reduced to one, his campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), who is the least developed character in the film.
From the opening credits, Milk is an artful blend of archival footage and dramatic reenactment; the frames connecting the two generations adopt that same grainy texture of old Super 8 footage down to the hair on the lens. The cinematography has that same bare bulb feel to it of ’70s porn.
Certain scenes are pure Gus Van Sant, particularly the one where Cleve Jones calls two friends and they call two friends to organize a protest, as well as a conversation between Milk and a police officer that is reflected in a bloody whistle.
Like Milk, Van Sant is an egalitarian and manages to speak to as broad an audience as possible while remaining true to his subject’s sexuality.
The timing for the film could not be more perfect with the passage of Prop 8 banning gay marriage in California.
Compared to the campaign against Prop 6 (the Briggs’ Initiative which would have banned gay teachers from California classrooms) in the film, Jones says he doesn’t feel the No on 8 campaign was particularly well run. “They did not heed the lessons of Prop 6 where thousands of ordinary LGBT folk came out to their neighbours and canvassed,” he says.
“It’s important to understand that in the mid-’70s we didn’t have the infrastructure that we have today. Back then almost everything that was accomplished was done through the shear force of individual personalities. Today we have large organizations.”
What’s missing from the film is the White Night riots that followed Milk’s assassination and his killer’s light sentence —which is a bit of let down after the scenes that seem to be building towards them. Jones says it was a conscious effort on the part of the filmmakers to focus on the last year of Milk’s life and his accomplishments.
“As someone who participated in White Night riots I would have loved to see that depicted on the big screen,” says Jones. “But it was the right decision not to. It’s better to end the film on a hopeful note as opposed to an angry one.”
Anyone who has been to San Francisco knows today’s Castro is nothing like the one Harvey helped create. That is due in part to AIDS, but also to the fact that it is simply too expensive to live there now.
“When I lived there it was very easy for young people, political activists, and artists to survive and flourish,” says Jones. “But I think the other thing that is different is that things are only new once. When we were moving to Castro St it was all brand new and all of us knew it. Everyone knew we were participating in something that had never happened before —ever. So there was an electricity and excitement there and that to me is the biggest difference of all.”