Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” is a fine character study and a solid look at a specific political movement and a certain time and place. It is marred only by the bitter aftertaste of reality, the tragic knowledge that not all that much has changed. It is perhaps unfair to look at a movie through the prism of events that happened after its story, but it is also impossible not to do so. To paraphrase a song from “Hairspray” (another film which was released on the eve of the nullification of part of its message), while we may have come so far, we truly have so far to go.
The story of “Milk” is the story of the last eight years in the life of San Francisco politician Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn with a certain gusto that just avoids overacting). In short, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to political office (he was elected to the San Francisco board of Supervisors in 1977). The film chronicles his political career and, as it befits his campaigns and issues, his personal life as well. It’s a pretty straightforward biography and never tries to be anything flashier.
Where the film stands out is how it defines Harvey Milk as an individual politician, rather than as a rorschach blot for the gay population in San Francisco at the time. Milk’s politics were pretty cut-and-dried social and economic liberalism (supporting expanded medical services for kids, supporting mass transit, etc). As far as gay issues, he was a strong proponent of closeted gays coming out (or, if need be, being forced out) and he strongly believed that gays should be represented by other gays, rather than by ‘sympathetic liberals’. These are not worldviews held by everyone who happens to be homosexual, and the film does a solid job in dealing with the conflicts he faced even in his own community.
The most fascinating relationship is the one he develops with embittered fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin, in an Oscar-worthy turn). Although they are often in opposition to each other, there were agreements here and there and there is a grudging respect at least at the beginning of their political partnership.
The key conflict of the second half of the film involves the attempted passage of ‘Proposition 6’, which would have allowed the firing of gay teachers (as well as anyone who ‘supported gay people’). The parallels to the successful passage of ‘Proposition 8’ (which removes the previously given right for gay people to marry in California) just two months ago are striking, and cast a sad pall over the picture. Quite frankly, it is very difficult to be inspired by this groundbreaking man, when a big part of his legacy has just been spat on in the very state that he served (further irony in the fact that it was partially the heavy minority turn out for another ground breaking man that helped insure passage).
As we see Anita Bryant and John Briggs (the always welcome Dennis O’Hare) spewing the usual anti-gay slander (Briggs didn’t even care about the issue, it was just a means to an end for him), we realize that the language (and the often successful results of said language) hasn’t changed one bit over the last thirty years. Regardless of what strides have been made, intolerance of gay people is still one of the last vestiges of acceptable bigotry (do you think Rick Warren would have been invited to Obama’s inauguration if he had been an anti-Semite or openly racist?).
But, if I may step off the soapbox, if we are to judge “Milk” purely by the film and not by the current context, it still works well as a well-acted and well-paced biopic that effectively captures the times in which it is set. As a time capsule, the film is a success, and it is consistently entertaining (especially for political junkies like myself). It is a genuinely political picture, a film that cries out for activism and/or knowledgeable political engagement. Purely as a biopic of an important man in the ongoing struggle for gay rights, “Milk” is a worthy biopic and a solid motion picture.
* SPOILERS!!! I have always found it fascinating that Harvey Milk, the pioneering gay politician/activist, was eventually murdered for reasons that had nothing to do with being gay. Dan White’s motives were apparently financial and political. He wanted his recently resigned supervisor seat back, but the mayor bowed to pressure to keep Milk in his current position, and he was targeting high-ranking city politicians in general. Aside from Milk and Mayor Moscone, he allegedly also intended to kill Willie Brown and Carol Ruth Silver. There is a great scene in the first season of “24” when Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer expresses a certain satisfaction that the assassination plot against him has nothing to do with him wanting to be the first black president (it’s payback for a botched black-ops mission that he oversaw as a senator). I wonder if Harvey Milk would have taken any solace from the fact that he didn’t die for being gay.