Foreseeing his own assassination, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), America’s first openly gay elected politician, records his memoirs. The film flashes back to follow his narration, tracking his transformation from don’t-make-waves semi-closeted New Yorker to activist San Franciscan. In his new home, he decides to run for City Supervisor, and after numerous failed attempts, which take a toll on his personal relationships, he finally wins. The battles are only just beginning, however, as he must now wage war against the intolerant laws being pushed by California Governor Briggs and anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant. Meanwhile, a prickly professional relationship with fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) is sowing the seeds of tragedy.
Penn is excellent as Milk, and the performance is, I think, even more remarkable the more one knows about Milk – he’s not as familiar to those of us north of the 49th parallel, but judging from what others have written, and from the brief clip of the real Milk that closes the film, the mimicry is uncanny. Brolin is also very impressive in the relatively little screen time that he has, making a real human being out of his assassin. On the other hand, Dustin Lance Black’s script tries to take on a few too many subjects, with a resulting fragmentation of focus, particularly when it comes to Milk’s relationships (and what exactly is going on with White is left tantalizingly unexplored). The political battles are well explained and examined, but the script and Gus Van Sant’s direction also produce some distance at the human level. Then, at the moment of the assassination, Van Sant’s restraint goes out the window, the film slips into operatic mode, a ham-fisted bit of foreshadowing is revisited just in case we were too stupid to catch it, and a scene that should have been unbearably moving teeters precipitously over the abyss of camp. Of all the times when Van Sant should have trusted both his audience and the impact of the event itself, this was it. The film is timely (almost tragically so), sincere and thoughtful, but it doesn’t always succeed in grabbing the heartstrings.
The film’s colour palette is an intriguing one, incorporating a lot of vintage footage (from the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk). Van Sant and DP Harris Savides capture the look of the 70s extremely well, and the shifts from documentary footage to the fictional look great in this transfer. The colours are very natural (and, when called for, very 70s). The image is sharp, and there are no problems with grain or edge enhancement. The aspect ratio is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The 5.1 sound is, like the film, very strong, but stopping short of outstanding. So, the score sounds terrific, and the dialogue is free of distortion. Said dialogue is frequently hard to make out, but that seems to be more a case of Penn mumbling than a problem with the mix. The surround effects during the big marching scenes are wonderful, but (and here’s where I think the track falls short) there is much less of a sense of an environment during the quieter scenes. Thus, in the sequence where Milk first announces his candidacy, and we see him walking across the road, there is some opportunity for environment creation, but there is none to speak of. All the same, a generally very nice track.
Deleted Scenes: (3:40) Three of them in a montage. One of them, yet another bit of foreshadowing which has Milk yet again declaring that he isn’t going to make 50, was very wisely cut.
Remembering Harvey: (13:20) Milk’s colleagues look back at his career and legacy. Fascinating stuff, though I would have liked to see actual footage of Milk, rather than scenes from the film.
Hollywood Comes to San Francisco: (14:28) A making-of featurette that does have the cast talking about the man himself as well as the production.
Marching for Equality: (7:34) A shorter featurette looking at the reconstruction of the marches. A nice touch is that a number of the people involved in the original events helped with the reconstruction.
If the film doesn’t quite hit the ball out of the park, it remains a fascinating, necessary project, with many strong features. The extras on the disc are interesting, too, though more would have been nice.