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Without hope, life's not worth living
Member Name: thedevilinme
Advantages: Great lead turn by Penn
Disadvantages: Lumbering biopic
Star- Sean Penn
RuN-TiMe 128 minutes
Rated - R
Director- Gus Van Zandt
I have to confess I could not bring myself to watch Brokeback Mountain, the idea of two cowboys kissing in full cowboy gear feeling more like a gay Hollywood movie executive fantasy than a serious movie. Milk, on the other hand, the life and times of gay activist Harvey Milk, did appeal, a serious biopic and a narrative a film fan could relate to, even though Sean Penn does snog various men in this. Off set he was so impressed with his kissing skills he text his ex wife Madonna with the news he had just had his first gay screen kiss. Seeing men 'neck' in the movies is still a big ask for a mainstream movie audience though and, like Brokeback, it's not really the sort of film a single straight guy would go see in the cinema. But it did $56 million in the multiplexes from its $20 million budget so it did ok, and like Brokeback, made far more on the DVD release.
When Hollywood do make a big budget biopic of important and interesting people they tend to do it well and tell an engaging story, almost treated as a historical document when done very well. I remember the first time I saw Apollo 13 not knowing the true story behind that and was amazed I had never heard about it.
Although this biopic is not going to resonate much with a British audience its still interesting, this a very American story, telling the extraordinary journey of an openly gay man (and Jewish to) to the highest political office in San Francisco, quite a feat in an openly bigoted America of the late 1970's that still practiced gay prohibition. But after just one year of winning office, like most great orators who had broken down the walls or prejudice in America, he to would receive three bullets to the head and body, just as Kennedy and King had gone before. But anyone who has been to America will know San Francisco is not only a stunning unique American city but the gay capital of the West Coast, his legacy one of a very safe and intelligent metropolis that has grown up to be free of the violence of many other of their great cities because of the high number of free thinking liberals who live there.
Based loosely on Randy Shilits biography 'The Mayor of Castro', gay director Gus Van Zant is the man behind the camera here who brings the book to life, Gus a man who has made films and documentaries about Milk for the last 15 years of his career, clearly a very important figure that help shape his life.
Sean Penn certainly enjoyed the experience, bagging his second 'Best Actor' Oscar in 2009 for this, only the 9th actor in history to do that. It's often the case that it's a strong lead turn that carries a biopic, Milk the film heavily nominated but didn't feature in any of the other big Oscar wins, this only worth watching because of Penn's impressive performance if we are honest, the narrative thread rather stagnant and sprawling because of its claustrophobic locations and time chronology, the other protagonists hardly registering in your conscious, most of the film set on the same street.
Sean Penn ... Harvey Milk
Emile Hirsch ... Cleve Jones
Josh Brolin ... Dan White
Diego Luna ... Jack Lira
James Franco ... Scott Smith
Alison Pill ... Anne Kronenberg
Victor Garber ... Mayor George Moscone
Denis O'Hare ... State Senator John Briggs
Joseph Cross ... Dick Pabich
Stephen Spinella ... Rick Stokes
Lucas Grabeel ... Danny Nicoletta
Brandon Boyce ... Jim Rivaldo
We are introduced to a 48-year-old Milk looking rather pensive and agitated in his grubby kitchen on a chilly night in Nov 1978 in the Castro, effectively recording his own will & testimony, an old rickety tape player and microphone awarded this momentous task, Milk fearing his end is nigh but unaware it was so close, the last intimate words he would ever record for the world. He knows he is going to die because the hate is nearly at his door as the death threats pile up.
...................Harvey Milk: I ask this... If there should be an assassination, I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out....If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door... And that's all. I ask for the movement to continue. Because it's not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power... it's about the 'us' out there. Not only gays, but the Blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the down. Without hope, the down give up - I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you... You gotta give em' hope... you gotta give em' hope...............
We then flashback 8 years to when his journey began, a party in New York City, his young lover Scott Smith (James Franco) ready to head west to seek more acceptance about their relationship, the more liberal West Coast and San Francisco earning that status after being torn apart by and then defeating the homophobic hate of the 1950s and 60s.
After setting up a camera shop in the Eureka Valley (later to become part of the Castro District) the couple are soon feeling that venom. The city cops are still turning on the growing gay population with brutality as the gays and hippies begin to call the city their home, the Castro the ground zero of that hate. Its open season and the police would baton them every chance they got, taking out their anger of the emasculating defeat of America in Vietnam by battering the peaceniks.
But Harvey can take no more, now an activist and deciding to run for city supervisor (our local councillor) of Eureka Valley to change things, his campaign headquarters above the shop. No openly gay man had achieved political office on the West coast, let alone a gay Jew, and so this a big ask and sure to be an impossible task. He's going to rip politics out of the closet and wants his supporters to follow him by being gay and proud.
The first task in politics is to get pressure groups on your side, Harvey surprisingly getting support off the macho men Teamsters Union early on by helping them in a campaign to remove Coors beers from bars. But his neighbouring district is staunchly Catholic and they are against everything Milk stands for, but defending Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), he too a Vietnam Vet, also forced to strike some sort of allegiance as Milks support builds, the type of relationship politicians have to endure. Although Harvey loses the 1973 and 75 races-and his lover, Harvey now with Jack Lira (Diego Luna) - his chances radically improve for the following year when a boundary change law is passed to help minorities win the districts they dominate. For example, allowing blacks to stand all candidates in black areas and Hispanic in Hispanic etc...If Milk can get other support outside the gay community he will win the race with ease. He chooses to stand his whole campaign on defeating Proposition 6, the so called Briggs Initiative', a law put forward by Republican Senator John Biggs banning homosexuals from working in the public schools system (our state schools), not only stopping gay people being an educator but current ones fired. His days of being a non issue candidate were over and if he could win the seat then the mayor's office beckons...
Only last month in America a US Senator, Roy Ashburn, who had repeatedly voted against gay rights laws in the Senate, was caught out after leaving a gay club drunk with another partly dressed man in his car and so had to confess to being homosexual on talk radio, Harvey Milks mission still not compete. He later said he voted on those issues how he 'thought his constituents wanted him to'. As a divorced father of four he has been a hypocrite all his life although you can understand why homosexuals live a lie. I know I would find it hard to deal with being gay and two of Milks lovers would also commit suicide in real life fighting depression and those conflicts.
Film wise the main problem here is the best bits are the beginning and the end and if it wasn't for Penn's outstanding performance to keep you interested for the two hours this would not have registered with the big award ceremonies. There's a story to be told, make no mistake, but its not told as well as it could be here. It looks and feels authentic with many of the original locations used in the film but it just lacks a third dimension of that mental struggle of being gay that makes the viewer really want to care about their plight, the film, perhaps, somewhat too camp and righteous so losing its edge. All Milks friends seem to be like Alan Carr. Saying that it's interesting to learn about Milk and the struggle gay and minorities have to go through to get the basic rights and for that you have to respect the guy and acknowledge this is a cinema film that needed to be made. Its just shame they didn't make an outstanding biopic the guy deserved.
Imdb.com - 7.9 out of 10.0 (44,807 votes)
Metacritic - 84 out of 100 (Green 'Good' rating)
Leonard Maltins Film Guide - 3.5 out of 4.0
Radio times Film Guide - 5 out of 5*
= = = = Special Features = = = =
To be fair Penn looks a lot like Harvey although the limited amount of material here suggest the family didn't give their permission to use much, which is a shame.
-Marching for Equality-
A feature of the movie is the gay marches and the footage here of Harvey's funeral and candlelit parade in his memory is quite moving. Milks killer would use a defence that his love of junk food made him depressed and this was the trigger for the killing, the so-called 'Twinkie Defence'.
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Summary: A story worth telling