Friday, 4 September 2015

Milk (2008 122min.) [BBC2 11.05pm]

Directed by Gus van Sant, written by Dustin Lance Black.

"His life changed history. His courage changed lives."

"Milk" is a biopic of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay activist who became engaged with the political process and ultimately rose to the position of power in San Francisco before meeting an untimely death at the age of 48 in 1978.

The film follows only the last eight years of his life when, having relocated to the West Coast from New York, Milk opens a shop that becomes a hang-out, information exchange and talking shop for the local gay community. He becomes an organiser and social campaigner (not just for Gay Rights but as representative of all excluded people), runs for city office unsuccessfully several times before finally becoming elected as a City supervisor on the same day as his nemesis, the arch-conservative Dan White (Josh Brolin).

van Sant cleverly mixes archive footage of the United States at the time and of the real Harvey Milk with the scripted portions of the film, giving it a feel closer to a documentary than a drama ; he opens with newsreel of late fifties and early sixties police persecution of gay men (and women) - busting up their drinking places and herding them into paddy wagons in the style of a thirties Speakeasy bust.

It then roles into Penn as Milk living a closeted life in New York. Unhappy and unfulfilled a chance encounter provides the catalyst for a move to San Francisco where the action of the remainder of the film is played out.

Despite the obvious input that van Sant has to the look and feel it's Sean Penn's film from beginning to end - he is in practically every scene and makes Milk a believable real life figure.
As he transforms and evolves from wild-eyed idealist into mainstream political animal not only does the superficial aspect of his appearance (clothes, hair etc.) change so does Penn's physical portrayal - he becomes "bigger" as he emerges from his safety zone and into the larger world. His mannerisms and speech patterns change; the transformation is complete in the final section of the film where Milk has become the establishment figure and the role of fire-brand wielding tyro is passed to others.

A confident, poised and fully engaged Milk emerges from Penn's performance - striding up the steps of the Town Hall to address protesters in conciliatory terms rather than the language of defiance and opposition that he was using earlier.

It's a film with an obvious message but it's delivered in a non-hectoring style; placing the Gay Rights movement within the context of the ongoing civil rights campaign in the United States and delivering a piece of filmed social history that has it's faults (mainly caused by the need to reduce a story with massive scope to a highlights package) but is entertaining, humane, warm and uplifting.

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