In November 2008, the state of California passed Proposition 8, a law denying same-sex marriage. A state supreme court decision ruled same-sex marriage was constitutional, but Prop 8 essentially rescinded that right. This was highly unusual because, typically, amendments give rights to people not take them away.
Immediately following, protests involving a million people sprung up all across the country. In 300 cities, young people, energized by the presidential election of Brack Obama, took to the streets in marches and demonstrations.
Thirty years may have passed since the life and times of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in California, but the archival footage that director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) integrates here from the 1970s looks like it could have been shot today, minus the bell bottoms and bad hair.
This film is proof positive that history, willingly or not, does repeat itself. Back in the 1970s, however, the fight was against Proposition 6. In San Francisco, 1978, when Harvey Milk was an elected official, Prop 6 was another discriminatory amendment against gay Americans.
Arguably, the amount of homophobia back then was far worse than today's. Some could still point to the Westboro Baptist Church and the death of 15-year-old Lawrence King of Oxnard, Calif., as proof. Those same some would also urge Van Sant to release his film before the election, the day on which Prop 8 would be voted.
With so many similarities to what happened in Harvey Milk's day and what's happening now, some wanted the film out there as part of the debate and campaign. Some believe the film could have helped to defeat Prop 8. I don't agree.
No question! Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn (Mystic River) gives an uncanny performance that's winsome and touching, but it feels isolated. There are moments when I believed he was connecting, but strangely Penn seemed in a stratosphere all his own for the most part.
I blame screenwriter Dustin Lance Black who has Milk as merely a mouthpiece against gay discrimination, a man who stands literallly on a soap box and pronounces loudly the injustice and unfairness of things like Prop 6, but never really flushes Milk out as a human being with more to know about him than just the fact that he's gay.
There is a moment toward the end when Milk encourages all of the people helping with his campaign to come out the closet, or basically reveal that they're gay to all whom they know, including family members. Moments later, Milk's boyfriend and lover Scott Smith, played with sweet care and loyalty by James Franco (Spider-Man), pulls Milk aside and says that Milk never fully came out to his family.
This small nugget about Milk's past, his childhood and home life, is the only thing we get to that regard. We get no idea of how Milk came to be the man that he was, what shaped him, or how his early years played a role. These things may not be crucial when you're considering that the film wants to be more about the movement than the man.
However, I assumed this to be a biopic, a cinematic, biographical look into this man's life. As such, more background seemed like an important thing.
Speaking of which, some more background would have been better for Dan White, played menacing and frustratingly by Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men). It's no secret or surprise that Dan White was the man who eventually assassinated Harvey Milk. The events of White's trial were the stuff of lore. Yet, the filmmakers here treat it as trivia.
First off, White's character isn't even introduced until the third act. Therefore, there's no real time to get to know his character. In an interview with Charlie Rose prior to the film's release on Thanksgiving, director Gus Van Sant revealed more into White's possible motivation for murder than his actual film reveals.
We're led to believe that White killed Harvey Milk and the mayor of San Francisco at the time due to a political tug-of-war, or maybe his job loss, the impact of which we never truly feel. It was obviously more than White being homophobic. White was under a lot of pressure, which through Brolin's face and body language we get a glimpse.
Yet, when the actual assassination happens, it is the most out of context moment , and probably the most irrelevant moment of the movie. It certainly didn't feel like a climax. I'm not even sure I can tell you what the climax of the movie was.
Penn as Milk is a very charismatic debater, and the filmmakers do a good job of posing the question, "Is being gay a crime?" Sadly, I don't think the filmmakers do an adequate job of addressing it. Is this merely a hollow political film, or, is it a substantive, personal one?
Toward the beginning of this movie, we see gay men beaten and some killed on the streets. We're told that it's by police, or possibly some hate crimes. Yet, the bodies and the perpetrators remain faceless. There's no emotional connection there.
Archival footage of Anita Bryant is shown, espousing hateful rhetoric condemning homosexuality. Yet, it remains archival footage, only shown on TV. One scene where one man complains about the presence of gays on Castro Street is done in wide shot and we never get a good look of the man's face.
That's the problem. Van Sant never really brings the controversy close-up. He keeps it at a distance. Another scene where we think Milk is being followed turns out to be nothing.
Later, when Milk argues against Prop 6, which was labeled Brigg's Proposition, Milk makes emphatic arguments, but sadly it feels all too impersonal. Prop 6 discriminated against gay teachers, trying to bar them from schools. As ridiculous as that sounds on paper alone, if Van Sant personalized it, it would have debunked the ridiculousness a lot more.
It was nice that Van Sant spent time introducing us to Milk's boyfriend and giving us warm, intimate moments of them in bed together. He should have instead introduced us to some gay teachers that I'm sure Milk probably met and brought the issue more home.
Nevertheless, Van Sant remains an amazing filmmaker doing important work. This project may have been a passion of his, but I certainly don't count it as one of his best. For more information, however, check out the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984).
Three Stars out of Five
Rated R for language, sexual content and brief violence
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 8 mins.