Only a few years ago, the idea of Hollywood making a movie almost completely peopled by gay characters would have been virtually unthinkable. However it seems Brokeback Mountain might have opened a few doors, as not long after that film came out both Gus Van Sant and Bryan Singer announced they’d be making movies based on the life of Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first openly gay man to be elected to political office in California. However Van Sant’s film was the first out of the gate, while Singer’s has now fallen by the wayside. That’s probably not a bad thing, as it’s difficult to imagine Singer’s take on the subject being better than Milk.
Perhaps just as important as the fact Hollywood is now prepared to make movies set in the gay world, is that Milk does this without de-gaying the subject matter. There’s been a tradition that whenever gay characters or themes appear in films, they get de-gayed in order to make them palatable for mainstream audiences. Whether it’s Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas having the world’s most chaste relationship in Philadelphia, or Hollywood’s penchant for bitchy but asexual gay best friend characters, gay people actually doing anything gay hasn’t been that popular. While Brokeback was a step forward in this area, Milk takes it beyond two people in love and plants us firmly into the emergence of a visible gay culture, activism and community in San Francisco.
Harvey Milk is certainly not your usual safe gay character. He picks up men, has sex with them, and certainly isn’t prepared to just stand in the corner in order not to offend anyone. The film doesn’t soften or hide any of this, presenting Milk as an complex, human character, even if he isn’t the sort of person Hollywood normally likes to make movies about (or at least not without shaving off any awkward corners). Of course, despite Milk’s many achievements in helping to building San Francisco’s gay district and getting elected to office while actively campaign on a pro-gay agenda, it’s probably his death at the hands of fellow San Francisco Supervisor Dan White that assured his legend.
Like many other films Van Sant has made (such as Last Days and Elephant), Milk is essentially about the events leading up to a tragedy that you know is coming. It’s a powerful storytelling device, but Van Sant doesn’t over-egg it as most director’s would, instead using it as a framework to show how Milk and those around him fought for gay rights and to allow homosexuals a visible place within society. The film does perhaps underplay the part others played in the early fight for gay rights in America (it barely mentions the Stonewall riots or the fact ‘pride’ parades had already been going on for several years before Harvey Milk even moved to Frisco in 1972 and started becoming politically active), but it’s nevertheless a fascinating insight into the early days of gay civil rights.
While I’m not normally a giant fan of Sean Penn, he’s truly wonderful as Milk, and it was nice to see that the Best Actor Oscar this year actually went to the person who gave the best performance. He’s surrounded by an extremely talented cast, including Diego Luna, James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin.
It is Brolin who perhaps has the most difficult job in the film, playing Harvey’s assassin, Dan White. It would have been easy to paint him simply as a villain, especially as White’s motives have never been fully clear or simple, however the film and Brolin do an admirable job of turning him into a fully fledged person, while not ascribing actions or motivations to him that aren’t at least somewhat backed up by fact.
As the movie is meant to have a bit of a grainy feel to it, with slightly muted colours that help give a sense of the era, you wouldn’t expect the picture on the Blu-ray to be absolutely flawless, however it is one of the odd things about Blu-ray, that the higher resolution does actually make deliberately grainy films look better by enhancing the grain. DVD’s lower resolution tends to turn grain to murk, while on Blu-ray it really brings out the look and feel of the film. Essentially you get a sharp grain, as intended, rather than just a fuzz. Milk does therefore look very good on Blu-ray and image-wise is a definite step up from the DVD.
That said, on the special features front there’s no difference at all between the DVD and Blu-ray, and neither has a particularly astounding selection. There’s a few deleted scenes and about 30-odd minutes worth of featurettes. The featurettes aren’t bad, with some remembrances of the real Harvey Milk and a look at the making of the movie, however it all feels a bit like it’s finished before it’s begun. A lengthier documentary on Milk would have been incredibly welcome, and it’s a shame we don’t get one.
Even so, Milk is one of the best films of the past year, and more than deserved it numerous Oscar nominations. It’s rare to find a biopic that doesn’t seem in some way compromised, and Milk should be applauded for both its honesty and its conviction to tell Milk’s story without pandering to Hollywood convention.
Overall Verdict: A rare biopic that mixes drama, emotion and politics, while not compromising either its own integrity or that of its subject. Outstanding.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac