Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Sean Penn amazes me. Not long before seeing "Milk," I viewed his work in "Dead Man Walking" again. Few characters could be more different, few characters could seem more real. He creates a character with infinite attention to detail, and from the heart out. Here he creates a character who may seem like an odd bird to mainstream America and makes him completely identifiable. Other than the occasional employment of Harvey Milk's genitals, what makes this character different? Some people may argue there is a gay soul but I believe we all share the same souls.
In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. Yes, but I have become so weary of the phrase "openly gay." I am openly heterosexual, but this is the first time I have ever said so. Why can't we all be what we prefer? Why can't gays simply be gays, and "unopenly gays" be whatever they want to seem? In 1977, it was not so. Milk made a powerful appeal to closeted gays to come out to their families, friends and co-workers, so the straight world might stop demonizing an abstract idea. But so powerful was the movement he helped inspire that I believe his appeal has now pretty much been heeded, save in certain backward regions of the land that a wise gay or lesbian should soon deprive of their blessings.
Gus Van Sant's film begins with Harvey Milk at 48, reflecting into his tape recorder about a personal journey that began at 40. At that watershed age, he grew unsatisfied with his life and decided he wanted to really do something. A researcher at Bache & Co. and a Goldwater Republican, Milk became involved with a hippie theater company in Greenwich Village and began to edge the closet door ajar and wave out tentatively. He was in love with Scott Smith (James Franco), they moved to San Francisco, they opened a camera shop in the shadow of the Castro Theater and saw that even America's largest and most vocal gay community was being systematically persecuted by homophobic police.
Milk didn't enter politics as much as he was pushed in by the evidence of his own eyes. He ran for the Board of Supervisors three times before being elected in 1977. He campaigned for a gay rights ordinance. He organized. He acquired a personal bullhorn and stood on a box labeled "SOAP." He forged an alliance including liberals, unions, longshoremen, teachers, Latinos, blacks and others with common cause. He developed a flair for publicity. He became a fiery orator. Already known as the Mayor of Castro Street, he won public office. It was a bully pulpit from which to challenge rabble rousers like the gay-hating Anita Bryant.