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A review of Milk

A review of Milk
On Christmas I saw Milk at the only theater in Vancouver where it's playing--the downtown theater.

Milk moves along at a brisk pace, start to finish. There are almost no gaps or pauses in the rhythm of the film--no moments that are so slow that they distract from the narrative, and no moments that are so glitzy, dramatic or fast-paced that they distract. The rhythm is perfect, something which is so seldom seen in movies or especially on t.v.

We know a lot of the story before it begins: Harvey Milk, an outspoken gay activist, becomes the first openly gay person to become elected to a major office. He is then assassinated, along with the mayor of San Francisco. Gus Van Sant, as director, was faced with the challenge of telling a story about which many of the particulars are already known by the viewer.

For me it was not only the rhythm, but the scenery and drama which drew me into the story and made me care more about a character that I otherwise might not have been so drawn to.

Sean Penn is a very familiar face, and that might have been a distraction, but with the help of a New York accent, and really good acting, it's easy to get beyond that familiarity.

The other major character in the film, besides Milk, is the revolutionary spirit of Castro Street--the many colorful and energized street scenes. The street scenes have it all: the murder of a gay prostitute, riots, the grimacing, menacing presence of police, the campaigning and activism, (including a memorable scene in which Harvey Milk tries to "recruit" Cleve Jones, played by Emile Hirsh). People just hanging out.

The streets in the film are teeming with energy, and with an expressiveness that couldn't have been expressed even in the liberated 60's. (well, maybe the late 60's). There are energized scenes of campaigners hanging out in Harvey Milk's flat, on what you can feel to be a sultry San Francisco night, and the closeness between street and home is very realistically depicted, at a time that was so much different from today, when the street is something that is cold and sterile. And homes are where we plug into cyberspace, embrace a screen, while being left alone, unbothered.

The campaigning scenes reminded me of the few days I spent canvassing with OSPIRG, several years ago.

The dark undercurrent of the film is the police presence. On one level, this is obvious: the film begins with historical footage of a police raid on a gay club, and with Harvey Milk tape recording a message in which he tells of the constant harassment that gay people in San Francisco faced from the police. The police are omnipresent in the film, but by today's standards, the depiction of their behavior is almost peaceful. There's a lot of shoving and obstructing, but little if any tackling or tasering.

The more profound aspect of the police presence struck me after I watched the film. Dan White, the ex-cop, ex-firefighter-turned city supervisor, becomes disgruntled and resigns his position. Within minutes, he's pulled into a San Francisco Police Association conference. And, long story short, a few days later he shoots the mayor and Harvey Milk. This trajectory of violence from point A to point B is a subtle feature of the film, but powerful.

Oh, and there's a lot of sex in the film, or rather, sexuality. It's striking to see the promiscuity of that era. Just as the streets aren't the same as they were back then, sexuality isn't the same either. For a brief time, the gay community rose up and shook off the religious and patriarchal constraints of the 50's and 60's, and was soon met by the plague of our time. There was a too-brief window, and it's hard not to keep that in mind while watching the film.

Milk is especially relevant now, with the recent passage of Prop. 8 in California, which bans gay marriage and annuls some 18,000 gay marriages in California. And Sam Adams will soon be the first openly gay mayor of a big city, so Milk is especially relevant to us in the Portland metro area.

Milk should have broad appeal to the public, as it is a finely crafted, entertaining and heartfelt film.

sultry what 28.Dec.2008 07:39

not even

> what you can feel to be a sultry San Francisco night

It's never hot at night in San Francisco. And almost never hot in the daytime either.

Thanks JR 28.Dec.2008 13:28


I appreciate your thoughtful review of this film. I was wondering if i would go see it, but your review has made me decide to see it for sure. I grew up in the Bay Area and spent a few "hot sultry" nights in the city. Yes...believe it or not, sometimes it is hot in San Francisco...

harvey wasn't the first 30.Dec.2008 07:24

look up