On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a group of us saw Milk, and we're betting on Sean Penn to win an Oscar. He did an amazing job of absolutely transforming himself into Harvey Milk. You know how sometimes with big star actors, you can't ever quite stop seeing the actor as opposed to the character. Not here. I didn't see Sean Penn at all, I only saw Harvey Milk. And now I feel as if I knew him. And lost him. It was a powerful film with strong resonance especially given the recent Prop 8 battle. (The battle against the Briggs Initiative was a signal event in Milk's career.) The whole film was very well made, a great biopic. An opening montage of actual 1970s film of men in gay bars being busted and harrassed by police establishes the context, and the use of actual film footage from events spliced into the film helps establish a documentary credibility. An emotional verisimilitude is created by the device of framing the film with scenes of Milk reflecting on his life, talking into a dictaphone, in contemplation of the possibility of his imminent death. I learned a lot of things I didn't know (I was oblivious to the gay world and being gay myself in 1978), and what a moving history lesson it was. It's inspirational to see the impact of a man who made a life-changing decision at age 40, and changed so much for so many in the eight remaining years of his life.
One nice touch that really hit home with me was a scene where a scared gay teenager, about to be sent by his parents to some horrific anti-gay deprogramming camp, calls up Harvey Milk just because he'd seen him on TV, and Milk was the only gay person that boy knew. And Milk gave him the self-confidence to run away (quite possibly saving his life, given the high gay teen suicide rates). Fortunately, I have wonderful parents and I never had to deal with that nightmare, but I can remember a similar experience. When I was just coming out senior year in college, I read in the newspapers about a guy who was an engineer working for TRW, who was gay, lost his security clearance, sued, and won. Since I had already accepted an offer at TRW, when I read that, I was fearful and wanted to talk to that guy. I called that total stranger, my voice trembling (especially over the "I'm gay" part), and thankfully got some good advice and reassurance about my future as a gay man working at an aerospace-defense contractor. Seeing that scene in the film took me right back to the memory of that phone call, the scene rang so true to me, and in that moment I appreciated even more deeply how much Harvey Milk meant to a whole generation of gay men and women just a couple years older than me. How much he changed everything.
I also didn't know anything about the Briggs Initiative at the time (I was sixteen). The film did a great job of building up the wave of anti-gay ballot initiatives that was sweeping the country then, with Anita Bryant as the spokesperson, and the feeling of embattlement that created in the gay community. It was such an eerie resonance between those events and the events of the past couple months, us feeling embattled by sign-waving protesters wanting to vote down our marriage.
The cast in this film were uniformly excellent, and there are surely Oscars in its future. Sean Penn, for sure, is getting Best Actor. But Josh Brolin, another actor who completely melted into his character, also did an impeccable job as Dan White, the traditional working class guy with a psychopathic undercurrent. And James Franco gave a solid performance as Milk's boyfriend (despite all the "eww, what was it like?" brouhaha over whether two straight boys could convincingly kiss), and Emile Hirsch really brought Cleve Jones to life. Kudos to director Gus Van Sant for finding the ideal balance of documentary factuality and emotional genuineness, both elements required for a masterful portrait of a hero.