Perhaps the unsung hero in the praised to the heavens Gus Van Sant helmed Harvey Milk biopic Milk is director of cinematography Harris Savides. Bringing the same visual acumen he did to Zodiac, Savides seems to have undeniably mastered the palette of the 1970s. The images he and Gus Van Sant put on the screen are as, if not more stunning than the bravura performance by Sean Penn and co.
Case in point is the first sexual encounter between Harvey Milk and his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco). Naturally, the performances are perfectly tuned and calibrated. Franco calls upon a hitherto largely suppressed charm (think of the dour Harry Osborn in Spiderman 3) and glances knowingly at the considerably less attractive Penn, easily conveying that he just cannot help but be captivated by this funny looking Jew from long island. Meanwhile, Penn’s halting downward glances reveal that though Harvey was brazen enough to proposition Scott in the subway, he still retains a sweet, easily wounded core underneath that freedom fighter exterior. These performances, however, are stunning precisely because of the visual mastery of Savides and Van Sant. A handheld camera is placed within inches of the performers, providing startlingly intimate close ups as it lapses in and out of focus. The larger image appears beautifully worn with lighting dim and hazy enough to hint at the illicit nature of the activity.
Of course, Milk does not just contain a flawless opening scene. Rather, the film picks up righteous steam as Harvey moves from Long Island to San Francisco to find a purpose. Eventually he discovers this to be politically crusading for gay rights and more specifically, representing Castro street, the center of the burgeoning homosexual scene. Harvey starts riots, boycotts anti gay businesses and generally causes hell. He runs repeatedly and loses just as often but refuses to stop being a nuisance to the man. His hard nosed head on charge into the establishment — gay and straight — forces homosexuals to demand more than just gay friendly leaders and challenges those leaders to deliver the rights they promised in exchange for gay votes. Eventually, Harvey becomes the first openly gay public official and begins fighting the good fight, mainly against Orange juice spokesman Anita Bryant and her campaign to ban gay teachers in California schools.
Although by now Harvey has most assuredly been canonized as a gay saint, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black approach his story with a determined realism, balancing scenes of Harvey loudly pumping his fist and infecting a generation with his fervor with his domestic failures and rocky personal life. Above all though, credit is due to the supporting players in the film for grounding the story. Emile Hirsch plays Harvey–recruited gay activist Cleve Jones with both humor and a subterranean anger. When he tells Harvey he doesn’t do losing, the apathy of disaffected youth fully gives way to the fire started by Harvey.
Likewise, Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Harvey’s assassin, Dan White lends another, even more vital dimension to the film. Refusing to sentimentalize a universally reviled man, Brolin nevertheless explores the reasons for White’s egregious murders aside from the now infamous “twinkie defense” — arguing that an excess of fast food consumption caused the act — employed during his subsequent trial. An oft -stated armchair phycologist diagnosis would be that White was simply an extremely repressed homosexual, whose internalized homophobia caused him to lash out. Fortunately, Brolin does not settle with such an easy, convenient conclusion instead portraying White as the ultimate misfit, a lone working class conservative in gay, liberal San Francisco whose lack of political strength leaves him at the mercy of the world around him, a man who just wished to seize control for once in his life even if it was with a revolver.
Gus Van Sant is an oddity in American cinema, a director who can delve as deftly deeply into the calculatedly mainstream (Good Will Hunting) as he can into the aesthetically experimental (Paranoid Park ). His presence and more importantly the mise en scene he perfects in the film are what elevate Milk above the innumerable perfectly acceptable biopics into the realm of American classics.