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The Gay Struggle Personified
on February 10, 2009
Gus Van Sant has always been an excellent if somewhat eclectic director. Although I have enjoyed his previous efforts, I was somewhat apprehensive when I heard he was undertaking a film biography of Harvey Milk. A gay figure of this importance, I thought, should be handled by someone a little more mainstream. Like many gay people, I am weary of gay-themed films that reach no one beyond a gay audience, and the message I would want to emerge from a film about Harvey Milk should be heard by everyone.
As if reading my mind, Mr. Van Sant has fashioned a film that is accessible to all, while approaching his subject with sharp focus and a singleness of purpose that is at once definitive and topical. A stunning achievement, MILK manages to make its point without ever being preachy or trite, while remaining as true to the facts as any film bio could ever hope to be.
The film opens with snippets of gay history that many young gay people, let alone a straight audience, may be shocked to discover. During the opening credits, a barrage of vintage film clips remind us that a scant 50 years ago, gay men, lesbians and transsexuals were subjected to violence, harassment, physical abuse, arrest and humiliation by the very people that most citizens look to for protection; i.e. the police and judicial authorities. The newsreel images of gay bar raids that open MILK project a surreal yet somehow eerily familiar atmosphere that seems to alternate between the bizarre and the barbaric. Many people today are not aware that, in the 1940's and 1950's, right here in the USA, gay people were arrested for simply patronizing a gay bar (newspaper headline: "Den of Perverts Busted"). Many of those arrested had their names and employers published in the morning paper (!), and often found themselves unemployed and unemployable, branded with the label of "deviate". It is this chilling fact of social injustice that clears the way for the film's swing into a very important piece of gay history.
Skillfully telling us the story of Milk's rise as a leader in the Castro Gay Community of San Francisco, Harvey Milk is seen throughout the film as a living, breathing flesh and blood person. Van Sant adroitly propels Sean Penn through a warts-and-all portrayal of a frail human being with an idealistic bent and a politician's savvy. As with any good film, it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern which is more impressive - the balance of a perfect cast and lovingly detailed direction weave their way through a seamless portrait of an important historical figure, yet we are somberly reminded that many people remember Harvey Milk solely for the "Twinkie" defense of his star-crossed killer. The end result is that gay audiences emerge from seeing this film with a sense of pride and purpose, while straight audiences leave with a better knowledge of who we (gay people) are, what we want, and what we are struggling for. By word of mouth I expected a thrilling cinematic experience; what I got was a surprisingly near-perfect motion picture and some of the best acting I've ever seen. I heartily recommend MILK to any straight person who wants to get a grasp on what the last 30 years of gay history were really all about, and any gay person who wants to feel good about themselves. MILK is a triumph. See it.