Humanity has been plagued by intolerance at every corner, crossroad, and crevice of its existence. From the plight of the Israelites to the Holocaust and everything in between, humans have continuously exemplified a tragically cruel unwillingness to tolerate each other. Over the course of 2000 years there have been various degrees of intolerance, but no matter the magnitude, each dogmatic instance carries with it an uncanny story of hope, life, and resistance. For the gay community of 1970's America, that story belongs to a man, and that man is Harvey Milk.
For a man who's since been named “A Martyr for Gay Rights”, it might seem strange that Harvey Milk spent 40 of his 48 years in the closet, but then, can you really blame him? What if you had a secret that, if revealed, would change the way everybody looked at you – from your family to mere acquaintances – would you not hide it? What's more important in Harvey's case is that he wasn't ashamed of his secret, just aware of how afraid the world was of homosexuals. And so, whatever changed his mind on his 40th birthday, Harvey set out to convince the world that gays were people too, and it was a cause that he was willing to – and unfortunately did - give his life for.
It wasn't until 1977 that Harvey became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, but he started running in 1973. After meeting and falling in love with Scott Smith (James Franco) around 1970 in New York, Harvey decided he needed a change and the couple moved to San Francisco. There they opened a camera shop on Castro Street and slowly integrated with the growing – both numerically and vocally – gay community already established there. After bearing witness to the mounting frustrations of victimizations at the hands of homophobic police and the pot-stirring publicity of bigots like Anita Bryant, Harvey realized he was in the perfect position to make a difference. And from the very first moment Harvey Milk stepped onto his makeshift “SOAP Box”, he seized the opportunity to facilitate change, putting the rights of the gay community above his personal desires, relationships, and ultimately, his life.
Gus Van Sant's Milk is a story that needed to be told, and it's filled with so much effort, love and care that to praise just one aspect of it would be naïve because it certainly is the sum of its parts. Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black – both winners of Oscar gold – deserve all the accolades they're now receiving. Penn is brilliant as Harvey Milk, effortlessly bringing the to life a man who was merely trying to make a difference. Milk didn't set himself up to be a martyr, nor did he feel it necessary, and Penn does a great job of capturing Harvey's human side – he loved, he laughed and he cried just like the rest of us. Black's script is subtle and nuanced, uncompromising in presenting the historical facts and never sentimentally building any of the characters or events up to more than they were.
The credit for successfully presenting such emotional material must also go to Van Sant, who brilliantly fuses actual news footage from the 1970s into the film to authenticate it even further. This technique is often overly intrusive, but Van San seamlessly transports us back to the 70s and puts us right into the fight with Harvey and his inner circle. The acting of the supporting cast is also fantastic with Emile Hirsch, James Franco (who's had a fantastic 2008) and Josh Brolin portraying various characters who shaped – for better or worse – the events and life of Harvey Milk.
The most obvious questions that arises while watching Milk are: why were people so afraid of Harvey Milk and why, to this day, are some people still so intolerant of not only homosexuals, but of anyone who falls outside whichever arbitrary definition of normal or acceptable is most popular? Since when did any sort or variance in people denote evil? In watching Milk, it's quite obvious who the evil people really were, and although it's regrettable that the Anita Bryants and Dan Whites refuse to go away, it's people like Harvey Milk who are doing all they can to extinguish the insatiable hatred from the world.
As far as Blu-ray goes, Milk isn't exactly the type of film you're going to us to showcase your set-up, but it still boasts quality picture and sound. Due to the actual footage used in the film and its setting in the 70s, Van Sant's film is intentionally gritty, therefore it lacks the pristine and crystal clear image we've come to expect from Blu-ray releases. However, as long as you realize the grain and grit is intentional, you'll have no problem loving Milk Milk in hi-def glory.
Being a Best Picture nominee and a winner in two other major categories, I expected the special features section of Milk to be jam packed, but alas, that's not so with this release. Whether that means we'll get another Milk release within a few years, I can't be sure, but the lack of extra material definitely suggests as much. In any case, there are about 35-minutes of extra content on the disc, so let's get to it.
First up is "Hollywood Comes to San Francisco", a 14 minute making-of feature. There are interviews from many cast and crew, who predictably praise Penn and Van Sant to no end. This by-the-numbers approach hinders many making-of features (they're all the same), but they're easier to watch when the film deserves every bit of praise it gets. Next up is "Remember Harvey", another 14 minute feature, this time offering an overview of Harvey Milk's life. This feature is by far the most interesting of the three, mainly because it includes interviews with Harvey's real life friends who are still alive, but it's just way to short. It could've easily been just as fascinating for over and hour. The final feature is "Marching for Equality" and it takes a look at two or the larger and more difficult demonstrations scenes and how they were filmed. Cool stuff, but once again, much to brief.
In the end, this initial Blu-ray release of Milk is a one trick pony, but in this case that one trick is well worth the price of admission. Unless you're a special features junkie, I have no problem in recommending Milk for purchase – it's a must see movie and easily one of the best of 2008!