We can speculate all we want about the caginess of Milk's promotional campaign, whether the film's clear-headed sense of protest could have been used to fight Proposition 8 in California had Gus Van Sant's biopic about Harvey Milk been released, say, a month or two earlier, but Milk himself wouldn't have wanted us to dwell on what could have been. Instead, he would have urged us to focus on what lies before us, and if Van Sant's film gets anything right, it's the manner in which it acknowledges and celebrates the slain activist's social, spiritual foresight, his fierce desire for change and refusal to be dogged by defeat, his understanding that his day in the sun would eventually come.
How great it must have been for queers in San Francisco's Castro district to know and hang with Milk when he first set up shop in the bourgeoning gayborhood, opening a camera store with his boyfriend Scott Smith. Milk reveres that beginning, but if Van Sant's film doesn't exactly mark an artistic leap forward for the director, it doesn't have to: If Gerry, Elephant and Last Days were all ruminations on death, Milk is a celebration of life. Still, the film is full of lush flourishes that strikingly articulate the sense of freedom that was in the air in San Francisco back in the 1970s, as in a shot of the camera pulling back and up into that air—call it a rising—to reveal Milk (Sean Penn) and Smith (James Franco) smooching in front of their store, celebrating their lack of shame, making one feel how this place was the beginning of a significant new chapter in the modern gay rights movement.
Van Sant also gives expression to the fear that gripped gays living in the Castro back in the day, curiously shooting an exchange between Milk and a police officer over the body of a murdered gay man entirely through the reflection cast by a discarded whistle, which gays used to alert each other of potential bashers in their midst. The shot is jarring given the otherwise unaffected tenor of the film, but Van Sant does interesting things with reflections throughout, as in a scene of Milk's fellow assemblyman, Dan White (Josh Brolin), staring at a television that reflects not only the image of Milk beaming about the passage of one of his propositions but also White's own visage. White, who would subsequently murder Milk and San Francisco's Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garger), may be insufficiently characterized, but this image creepily, poetically, succinctly conveys the struggle of people like White to see themselves on the same plane as gays.
Mercifully, Milk is closer in artistic temperament to Bill Condon's undervalued Kinsey than it is to, say, Ray and Walk the Line. No histrionic, color-saturated flashbacks to reveal who Milk was before he came to San Francisco, who or what he may have been afraid of or running from—the type of visual clutter that's typically contemptuous of audiences and would have been unnecessary here given the complex window Penn's great performance opens into Milk's emotional and psychological character and convictions. If you must, call it a stellar impersonation—fans of Rob Epstein's great The Times of Harvey Milk no doubt will—but don't liken it to the more technical thesping of, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. This is a less finicky performance, and through quick, haunted allusions to Milk's past, like a reference to his never having had a boyfriend who didn't want to kill himself, Penn helps us to understand something very essential about this great activist: his will to create a world without closets.
Clearly Van Sant struggled to deliver something as conventional as he has, but if his visual digressions aren't exactly subversive, they affect a feeling of angst that's very much in sync with the time period depicted in the film. Beyond Milk, the characters barely qualify as real people—his boyfriends, for one, are unimaginatively portrayed as "wives" frustrated by Milk's commitment to his political career (the less said about Diego Luna's embarrassing, miscalculated performance the better)—but Van Sant reveals different facets of the gay community through his quick depictions of Milk's foot soldiers. If these portraitures are flat, you could argue these men (and one woman) represent placards: one, Emile Hirsch's Cleve Jones, a representation of the queer who wishes to benefit from the political process without contributing to it (Milk's commitment to change eventually rouses him to action); another, Joseph Cross's Dick Pabich, an example of those whose selective out-ness is of no help to their gay rights crusade; and those, like Stephen Spinella's Rick Stokes and Zvi Howard Rosenman's David Goodstein, who are actively in bed with the enemy.
Like Brokeback Mountain, Milk flatters enlightened sociological views, and as such its merits are bound to be overstated by the same cult that rallied behind Ang Lee's dull awards darling. For sure, without Penn's performance or Van Sant's occasional aesthetic detours, Milk probably wouldn't matter too much, but there's no doubt that it does a body good, casting a chilling spell in the wake of Proposition 8. Through rousing use of archival footage and recreations of Milk's fight against Proposition 6, which sought to ban all openly gay persons (and their straight friends) from working in the public school system, Van Sant not only illuminates the fear of gays forced to live as second-class citizens but the great tool Milk used to humanely cut through the bullshit of monsters like Anita Bryant and John Briggs (Denis O'Hare) who used their religious beliefs to legislate morality: the man's kvetching sense of humor.
Milk was an opera queen and the film strangely plays up his relationship to his favorite music, until he attends a performance of Tosca on the day before his murder and Van Sant connects the opera's subject matter with Milk's belief that he would never see the age of 50. Throughout the film, the music plays only in the background, almost as if it were a projection of Milk's imagination, as opposed to something playing on a record player. But then, the music stops creeping and rages to the fore, becoming a reality, and as Tosca falls to her death on stage, so too will Milk fall to his in the political arena. Fault the film for playing it too straight too much of the time, but don't lambaste it as hagiography, because queers who came to know Milk in the '70s, or through Randy Shilts's seminal The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, understand and respect the man as a martyr who died calling for revolution.
Upon his death, Milk was scattered to the wind near the Golden Gate Bridge, and in the wake of Proposition 8, his spirit is no doubt restless, but Van Sant would argue that Milk is likely cracking wise over what happened on November 4, when San Francisco's Castro cried twice in one day: first in jubilation over their state helping to usher a decisively different direction for the United States, then in agony over the irony of their friends and neighbors having kicked a symbolic door open for minorities while shutting it closed on others. Remember, this was the man who once said, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." That famous line is enshrined in this very heartfelt and rousing film that celebrates Milk's understanding that there is victory even in defeat. Somewhere he's saying: "Yes we can."