When we first began hearing about the film it told us that Harvey Milk was the first openly gay official to be elected to power in America and that he and the Mayor were assassinated by another official over what amounted to be rather inconsequential and unconnected with Milk's story.
However that blurb does nothing to sell the film and is in fact far from what it is all about and the true impact it can carry.
It soon becomes clear that the local businessmen are against Milk and his partner moving into the area and opening the shop and promise him that they will be out of business as soon as they can arrange it, but Milk doesn't care for that treatment and rallies together the gay community. Through his organisation and public speaking he manages to make the gay communities voice heard and their power felt. Soon in the Castro region shops are going out of business if they aren't selling to gay customers, and those that do are flourishing.
With the rising police brutality and the continuing anti-gay feeling from both officials and the public, Harvey Milk is spurred onto further action and eventually decides to run for office. Already dubbed The Mayor of Castro by the gay community, he feels they need a real voice within the city and the government and so he starts campaigning.
It takes a number of attempts and a reworking of how the local officials are elected, but eventually he makes it and is elected to power. Quickly he learns the political ways and wins over votes, as well as the Mayor, and the gay community is finally heard and accepted.
Another city official Dan White tries to get Milk's influential political aid onto a number of his propositions for the city but Milk refuses to back him. Sometimes because he does not entirely believe in the actions or the propositions, or because has not received similar help from him in return. With each denial and refusal to help White grows more and more resentful.
At the same time a movement is rising in America to stop homosexuals and friends of homosexuals teaching children in schools. The movement is winning over states in the U.S., and is coming to California. Milk decides to take them head on and with his community behind him, fights for all they are worth. His biggest challenges are about to come together and face him head on.
First up I have to say that the screening I was at was pretty poor. It was a preview screening and it really felt as though they had made little effort at the cinema to set the print up, and no one was watching it as it started to play. The side curtains in the projection booth were covering the sides of the screen - something I would normally complain about but cutting across the row would have bothered far too many other people, and by the time I realised what was wrong with the picture I was too engrossed in the film to leave to complain, I hate missing anything in a film - and also at one point in the middle of the film the colour tint changed mid-scene flicking from a yellow tinge to normal colours. This was a strange moment and it was only when it flicked that you realised there had been something wrong with the colour tint all this time.
So I have to take that into consideration when I review the film, the cinema didn't give it a fair screening, but the film shone through that regardless.
I have to say I was unsure of the opening, particularly the first introductory scenes to the character of Harvey Milk. They were a little confusing as they leapt back and forth in the timeline from the present day of Milk telling his own life story to actual footage from future events within the city buildings. It's not so much the leaping back and forth I had an issue with, but more the timing of the leaps that seemed slightly off kilter. I think because of this these scenes from the future lost some of their potential impact on the audience.
The film begins slowly and to be honest I wasn't sure I was even going to enjoy it until the first twenty minutes had passed, and by then I realised I was drawn into the characters and their relationships, as well as the bigger story. The film is definitely a slow builder, and you hardly notice the point that you're connected with the story and Milk.
Sean Penn's performance is very strong and he plays his character really well, not just the camp character at the beginning of the film, but the character that Milk grows into, the confident political activist that he becomes, and ultimately the successful and powerful politician. It's a well written and acted transformation, and from feeling rather disconnected with the character to begin with to feeling connected to and proud of the character at the end of the film is a great feat.
While Penn gives a great performance as Milk, we need to pay attention to the performances of James Franco and Josh Brolin as his partner and city official White respectively. I do wish we had gotten more of Franco's character so that we could have connected to and understood him more, because ultimately his relationship with Milk is one that plays a huge part throughout the story of Milk's life.
Brolin gives a good performance and his character is also well written, not over dramatising his feelings or state of mind, not trying to paint him as a strong anti-gay character or letting him slip into a standard unhinged character we would see in Hollywood films, instead he's played real and vulnerable when they could have so easily shown him in a complete downward spiral.
The interactions between White and Milk are well written and portrayed too, and the film-makers do manage to make sure they get just enough back and forth between them, not too much to make it over dramatic, and just enough to give the hint of trouble to come, something that is echoed by the looks and the subtle reactions between the two actors as their relationship continues through the film.
It's in the second half that the film really picks up pace and power, and with the intensity rising between the leads and the political events Milk has to deal with increasing in stature, there's plenty of fuel to be had. However it's really the main plot device that brings raises the stakes for all the characters as well as the audience.
This was perhaps the most powerful driving force of the film and hit me like a brick, for I had no idea that it was until so recently that gay rights were so far backwards and that they were not only hounded by the police but were being beaten and murdered without recourse, and that a Christian rights movement was sweeping across America intent on making it illegal to have a homosexual or a supporter of homosexuals teaching children in schools.
To believe in the late seventies, across America, human rights were being threatened and indeed removed for gays was astounding to me, and it really did add a great deal to the power of this second half, for this is not only when the level of politics increased, but the humanity of the film and of the importance of Milk's work really hit home.
There were some truly shocking moments that helped build the adversarial aspect of the Christian movement, particularly in the wording that was used by their spokespeople both in and out of politics. Their associations of words like paedophilia and bestiality with homosexuality was incredible. These revelations, as well as the way they were presented with actual footage and recreated events, added so much weight to the film's message and Milk's motivation.
In retrospect it's shocking to see what is happening once again in America, and to realise that not that much has changed since Harvey Milk and the American people fought this battle.
The final scenes in the film play out well, carrying just the right amount of shock but not going towards shock value for the sake of a reaction, and managing to continue the feeling of watching real events without taking a side or making a statement about those involved.
Something I did find very surprising about these final scenes is that there's no judgement made on the characters, something that so many other films would attempt to make, and that is a strength of the entire film without a doubt.
For the first dramatic scene in the ending we are shown just enough and the rest is handed over to witnesses, and for the final dramatic moments we share the time with the two lead characters in a scene that seems rather intimate. Far from feeling violent it is shown with reverence and a degree of compassion, although it is shocking and upsetting just not in the way that so many other films would have portrayed it, a sign of how strong the writing, directing and editing is in this film.
That first dramatic scene resulted in a shocking gasp from an audience member behind me, but there was a heavy silence from there until the very end.
The very final moments in the film do have a slight twee feeling to them, but as the person sitting watching with me said, it may really have happened just like that.
Regardless of that moment the ending is extremely powerful and completes the film wonderfully.
Throughout the production values and filming were very good with a grain and colouring to the film that felt very authentic, despite the tinting issues in the screening.
This is a powerful film that provides for some shocking insight into just how reserved America is and how powerful the Christian right can be. Despite that being such a powerful driver for the story and the characters, the film really is about Harvey Milk and the good he did, not only for the San Francisco gay community, but for the human rights across California and even America.
The writing is very strong and along with historical events gives Milk a power that builds through the second half to a striking ending. Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and James Franco give great performances, but it's Sean Penn that shines. Occasionally his mumbling voice is difficult to hear, and his character performance feels slightly over the top to begin with, but as time passes and the character changes so does his performance.
Milk has great actors giving strong performances in a powerful story that just happens to educate as well as highlight something that might be happening again in modern America. Milk is definitely worth watching and taking careful note of.