Milk of Human Kindness
I am sure there were many who watched "Milk" knowing the story of Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist and San Francisco Supervisor who in the 70s was assassinated but I am not one of them. The name Harvey Milk meant nothing to me at all but the buzz surrounding "Milk" and in particular Sean Penn's performance lead me to watch it. And what an impressive movie it is, as whilst on one hand it has that biopic quality delving in to a period in the life of Harvey Milk as he lead the fight for the gay rights it actually transcends that story and is a fascinating look at the sacrifices leading a battle for rights full stop. As such if for whatever reason you feel uncomfortable watching a movie about a gay man and gay rights "Milk" is still work a watch because it is a lot more than just a movie about gay rights.
Now as already mentioned I knew nothing of Harvey Milk before watching "Milk" but in a way you don't need to know anything to become entertained by it, although entertained seems a strange phrase for a story where we know that the main character is assassinated, we learn this early on. So anyway "Milk" basically covers a few years in the life of Harvey as he moved to San Francisco with partner Scott, set up a camera shop and in doing so created the basis of a gay community whilst also having to face prejudice. It then goes through his decision to stand for the position of supervisor, the numerous failed attempts before finally achieving his goal. And whilst all of this is going on we also see him becoming a leader of the gay community, a figure head fighting for their rights in particular to be allowed to work in schools.
Now this is all fascinating and very powerful with director Gus Van Sant doing a brilliant job to recapture the emotions of the 70s. You really appreciate how the gay community were persecuted back then and the clever use of old photos and archive footage really helps to build the atmosphere where gay men would be scared to walk down a street. But it is more than just about the era because at the same time we also get a sense that leading the fight for gay rights Harvey also sacrificed himself to the cause as his relationship with Scott ended due to his devotion. You really get a sense that by the end of the movie you truly understand this man or at least what motivated Harvey Milk.
Now for those who feel uncomfortable watching a movie about a gay man I will be honest there are scenes which may test you but it's worth getting past this. The reason being is that the story of Harvey fighting for gay rights is far more powerful than that battle, this is a story of a battle again prejudice and the power that a collective people can have in achieving their rights. In fact as the storyline progresses the emotion we feel as we watch Harvey fights for election and the system is of injustice rather than whether you agree with homosexuality and gay rights.
A big reason why this works is a knock out performance from Sean Penn who once again demonstrates that special quality of not just acting but becoming a character. Every second of his performance is captivating be it the smallest seemingly insignificant mannerisms to the excitement of achieving something be it leading a huge rally or winning one of his numerous battles. Penn's performance is aided by solid performances around him from the sense of ambiguity Josh Brolin delivers as Dan White to the sense of tiredness which James Franco delivers as Harvey's suffering partner Scott.
There is just one negative to the movie and without going into detail the ending feels wrong, not in what happens but in the style in which it is presented. For a movie which for the most had felt at times raw and often real the way Gus Van Sant chooses to deliver the ending feels too choreographed to the point of feeling false.
What this all boils down to is that "Milk" is a surprisingly good movie whether you know the story of Harvey Milk or not. But what makes it so good is that whilst on face value it is the story of Harvey Milk and his fight during the 70s for gay rights it transcends this and becomes about fighting for rights full stop be colour, creed, sexual preference or whatever and as such becomes a story of sacrifice and emotion, power and glory, heartbreak and pain. Yes for those who find the prospect of watching a movie about a gay rights activist challenging I still recommend that you watch "Milk" because it's not what some may call a "gay movie".