Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Summary: The story of California’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by San Francisco Supervisor Dan White.
**** out of ****
Seriously one of the best movies I’ve seen this past year and well deserving of all the accolades it’s received. I wish I could be more coherent about specifics but I’m still on a bit of a viewing high so I will touch on as many points as I can.
First off, Sean Penn continues to be phenomenal (and should get another Best Acting nod) and I was really impressed with the entire supporting cast (James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin). Also someone who stood out? Fellow Torontonian Alison Pill in one of her first big roles – others might remember her as the oldest daughter in Dan in Real Life. Gus Van Sant did a fantastic job with the film and paid tribute to a significant person (and piece) of history in an extremely powerful way – it’s not shocking to know that he has been trying to get a version of this story made for quite some time as his passion for the project really shines though. It is not a preachy film at all but obviously does present a specific point of view in a fairly balanced and sympathetic way. I think a lot of the fine line walking is thanks to a fantastic script by first-timer Dustin Lance Black – he manages to capture the time period very well without resorting to cheesy plot devices, he is fairly restrained in portraying the negatives of those opposed to the cause (instead he lets archival footage of people like Anita Bryant speak for itself), and manages to capture the amazing figure that was Harvey Milk (although Sean Penn managed to add layers to already finely tuned dialogue taking everything to an even higher level). Let’s just say that from almost the beginning of the movie I wanted to jump onto the screen and volunteer alongside his team to help fight against human rights abuse and injustice (which says something about both the movie and myself – since I’ve been known to get passionately involved in a cause of two in my time). That said, the whole story gave me hope that change is possible but conversely made me sad at how very little progression has been made since Harvey first took a stand over 30 years ago.
The film also makes me want to see the Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, that was released back in 1984 (coincidentally the year Dan White was released from prison after serving 5 of his (woefully short) 7 year sentence for manslaughter). I find myself wanting to know as much about Milk and the movement as possible and I think this would be a fantastic place to start.
I had never heard about Harvey Milk before I read about this film being produced. How is that possible or, in fact, acceptable? This man broke down huge human rights barriers and changed the political landscape in the US – it’s pretty sad that his name wasn’t mentioned once in any of my US History classes. I’ve heard of the “Twinkie Defense” but not of the murder that led to it’s invocation? Clearly if that, and the movie itself, have left me with anything it’s that – corny as it may seem – the fight is never over. Every small step forward or battle won should be celebrated and given the recognition it deserves. Change is never easy and to achieve even the littlest bit is something to be lauded. But change is ongoing and never ending and there will always be more to fight for and more, sadly, that needs changing. Prop 8 anyone? Yeah…still a long way to go.
Final verdict? Seriously – if you haven’t seen it? Go now.