Monday, December 22, 2008


Gus Van Sant cast the Oscar bait on the waters and Sean Penn took the hook, giving a fantastic performance that never looks like Sean Penn. This is a great leap beyond his performance in Mystic River, and he truly manages to embody the character of Harvey Milk- the crusading gay rights activist and first openly gay politician elected to public office.
Van Sant directs quite well, and seems more on track with his older films like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho than his bland but name-making Good Will Hunting. His sardonic eye is back, and we first meet Harvey in New York, at a random pick-up on his birthday. The benefit of being made by a gay director is that no punches are pulled and we do not shy away from the infamous '70s lifestyles and indulgent parades that are now frowned upon in an age where gay marriage is possible.
Prop 8 may have passed, but they have come a long way, and they stand on the shoulders of drag queens who got the shit beat out of them at Stonewall, and people like Harvey, who were unapologetic about their sexual orientation. Harvey and Scott- his pickup who becomes a long-time lover- move to San Francisco to escape the closet culture, and start a camera shop on Castro Street, near Haight-Ashbury and its accepting hippie culture. The camera shop becomes a gay activist hangout and eventually Harvey wants to change the system, and make it work for them- so he runs for office. Many, many times, before an act of gerrymandering allows him to become supervisor for his neighborhood.

He pulls together a team- young hustler Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild), lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill, Dan in Real Life), and a motley gang of gay activists, that help drive him to victory with some political maneuvering- like leading a huge crowd of rowdy protesters to the steps of City Hall before quelling them with his natural public speaking skills.
By this time Scott- played to organic perfection by James Franco, another actor who's showing just what he can do if he has the chance- has tired of the political stress, and Harvey is with a flaky guy played by Diego Luna- once again this is not a puff piece, and we see some of Harvey's weaknesses and inability to break things off. Thankfully this is not delved into deeply- we don't get obvious Hollywood mirror monologues that tell us he has a need to make people happy, he can't say no, or whatever. We get a picture of a man with a mission, ahead of his time.
While teaching us a bit of history is one aspect of the film, it is more about character, Harvey as a person and his attitudes. We know the story- Harvey will succeed, only to be shot down by fellow supervisor Dan White. The movie is perhaps wise in its decision not to dwell on the circus trial of Harvey's murderer, and the riots that followed the decision. In fact, the movie lets hero Harvey's tragic flaw- that he was perhaps too kind, or couldn't see a dangerous personality when it stared him in the face- speak for itself.
Josh Brolin plays White as someone who looks dead normal but obviously has something bubbling beneath the surface- someone who should not be crossed. He's come a long way from The Goonies, and this is a big step from No Country for Old Men, as well- less subtle, but more risky. Penn's performance will be the talk of the Oscars, but Brolin, Franco, and Hirsch all do amazing jobs here. In the end, Harvey Milk's refusal to accept the backwardness of the times and his embrace of a more ideal future is the movie's enduring message. Will it make a difference the next time a Prop 8 type referendum comes to a popular vote? It's beyond that. It's a picture of a man without whose tireless work, the very idea of a gay marriage being legal could not be given serious thought. Gus Van Sant has crafted an excellent biopic of Harvey Milk, and doesn't clutter it with messages. Anyone with half a brain can see the message in Harvey's life. That we are all created equal and granted inalienable rights.

My one disappointment: that the Dead Kennedys song "I Fought the Law (And I Won), which excoriated the manslaughter conviction that White received for executing the Mayor and Harvey Milk, was not used in the film, and the riots forgotten. The infamous "twinkie defense" and the ability of an ex-cop to serve a mere 4 years after assassinating two political figures, is something else that must not be forgotten.

3.5 dongs out of 4

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