Thursday, June 04, 2009


I watched this movie on a flight from New York to Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago. It's excellent.

For those of you who don't know, its the bio-pic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the USA; in the late 70s.

I feel I have to state up front that the pre-AIDS gay scene, particularly the San Francisco one featured here, fascinates me and repulses me in more or less equal measure.

I find the sense of community, bonding, shared responsibility, shared homes and possessions, etc., really quite appealing - in some ways its oddly reminiscent of the way the Bible portrays the early church; the believers (a persecuted minority) being united in possessions and purpose.

Of course where the SF gay scene in the 70s differs from the early church is the sexual promiscuity, etc.

I did find the sexuality in this movie pretty tough going at times. There's nothing explicit on screen, but I found some of the attitudes and behaviour pretty repulsive - particularly the elevation of the importance of sex above the importance of relationship. There's one scene here where two guys start making out before they even know each other's names. I know this happens in heterosexual as well as homosexual circles, but I still find that pretty uncomfortable viewing.

The movie starts with Harvey Milk recording a message to be played only in the event of his assassination. It sets up your expectations for the film. Before viewing the film, the only two things I knew about Harvey Milk were that he was the first openly gay man elected to public office in the USA, and that he was murdered while in office. However, I think the opening of the film kind of puts false expectations onto the viewer, as he wasn't really murdered for his homosexuality (as is implied at the outset, and throughout the film), but for other political reasons. However, that is really a minor niggle.

Sean Penn gives an outstanding performance as Harvey Milk. How he didn't win awards for this performance is a mystery - this is a masterclass in acting. From the word go, I wasn't watching Sean Penn acting the part of Harvey Milk, I was watching Milk himself. This is a good enough reason to watch the film in itself.

The character of Harvey Milk is also very interesting. He didn't set out to be a politician. Indeed, the film starts on the eve of his 40th birthday when he's reflecting on his life and he realises that he's not really done anything of note. But we see him slowly changing from the attitude of "someone should do something about this..." to "nobody else is going to do something, but I can do something...". Its amazing how this shy guy transforms into a figure head and a leader.

The rest of the cast are good too, and the period setting is perfectly evoked, but this is Penn/Milk's movie.

Its fascinating, informative, thought-provoking and entertaining. Highly recommended.

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