Ian Berke, realtor and real estate in San Francisco
Ian's Listings
SF listings
About SF
About Ian
Ian's List
Film Reviews
Stone Books
Legal & Privacy

tel 415.921.7300
cell 415.860.2777

DRE #444020

Film Review


For those of us who lived in San Francisco in the 70's, Gus Van Sant's latest film, Milk, brings back powerful memories, mostly sad. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as a Supervisor in 1977. And a year later was murdered, along with the Mayor, George Moscone, in City Hall by Dan White, an ex-Supervisor who had just resigned.

Milk begins with documentary footage of gay men being arrested, probably in the 1950's, hiding their faces as they were filmed being forced into police vans. Then it shifts to Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn, having a chance meeting with another gay man in a New York subway station, leading to their going home together. Milk, like all other gays then, was closeted, lest he be fired from his insurance company job. But this partner, Scotty, convinces him to move to San Francisco. He arrives in 1972, as drugs and abandoned buildings marked the end of the Hippie Era. And rented a flat on Castro St, above a small empty store front. The Castro District, in Eureka Valley, was then largely an Irish Catholic neighborhood. Milk opened a camera shop in that store front, and began to speak out about violence against gays, including police brutality, and gay identity. He became a strong advocate of coming out of the closet, so that they could live an honest, unconcealed life, and perhaps influence straights to accept gays as ordinary people deserving of same rights as everyone else. Essentially, civil rights for gays. He ran unsuccessfully in three elections, but was finally elected Supervisor in 1977 as a result of tireless campaigning, strategic alliances, and the shift to district elections in San Francisco. One of the alliances formed was with the Teamsters Union, because Milk had been instrumental in helping organize a boycott of Coors Beer, the ultra conservative, union-hating company. All of this, and more, is chronicled in the film. Milk is depicted as brash, shrewd, charismatic, but also genuinely kind and caring, and determined to change the system. It is easy to forget how revolutionary Milk's ideas were then, and his tremendous influence then and now, especially remarkable since he only held office for a year before being killed. Van Sant strives for historical accuracy, chronicling a history we've forgotten, such as Anita Bryant and John Brigg's campaign to fire gays from teaching jobs, the infamous Proposition 6. Pity this film was released after the election; perhaps Prop 8 would not have passed.

Milk is beautiful, brilliant, understated, yet a very powerful film about a very theatric man and his own evolution and revolution. The locations are so familiar to anyone living here: the Castro and City Hall. Archival footage is often used to great effect: Anita Bryant's interviews, Dianne Feinstein's tearful announcement that the Mayor and Harvey Milk have been killed, the huge candlelight march up Castro Street onto Market, and more.  The music seemed particularly well suited, from Tosca to 70's hits. And Sean Penn is simply phenomenal here. Not only does he physically resemble Harvey Milk, but he disappears into the character. And Josh Brolin, playing Dan White, is superb as a very ordinary man with serious issues, including the suggestion that he might have had gay impulses.

Cinematography is excellent, the film never drags (so to speak), and I felt as if I had been transported back 30 years.  It seems likely that Milk will win two Academy Awards (you read it here!): best picture and best actor. The coda, the futures of those in the film, was riveting, and in some cases, very sad. But like Harvey Milk himself, this film is a triumph, and should definitely be seen on the big screen.  Easy to do as it is currently  on a total of five screens at the Castro, the Embarcadero, and the Kabuki. I loved it.

It is painful to think of what might have been had Moscone and Milk not been killed. Both were very progressive, and probably would have dealt with the city's problems better than Feinstein did. For one thing, we would have seen less emphasis on development and more attention to the preservation of neighborhoods and historic buildings. Social services would also probably have been more effective.  Not that Feinstein's terms were a disaster, but they were simply not visionary or distinguished.

Return to the List of Film Reviews

Home | Ian's Listings | SF listings | Rentals | Architecture | About SF | About Ian |
Ian's List | Legal & Privacy | ian@ianberke.com | © 2009- ianberke.com