Milk, Gus Van Sant’s labor of love biopic about civil rights leader Harvey Milk (the first openly gay man elected to higher office in the United States and later gunned down, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, three decades ago this month), is mainstream filmmaking at its finest and a perfect wedding of subject matter to director. For Milk, like Van Sant, was a former “radical” who learned to work within—even to embrace—the system, stealthily turning it to his advantage. What Milk is to extremist activists like Larry Kramer, Van Sant is to fellow filmmaker Todd Haynes—no longer a director of experimental art in the moving picture medium, but a maverick of the mini majors.
Even comparing Van Sant to Haynes is like weighing apples against oranges: Van Sant is as much of a sly showman as his subject, who grasped the power of rallying crowds with catchy lines (“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you,” a play on Anita Bryant’s scare tactic of gays “recruiting our children”) and staged events (stepping on dog poop to promote a pooper-scooper law)—an insider working covertly within the system. Indeed, Van Sant understands the power of schmaltz above nuance. Whatever you need to do to make your message accessible and heard loud and clear—evidenced in the director’s casting of straight marquee names (like Sean Penn as Milk, in an Oscar-worthy performance) in the lead roles at the expense of actual gay actors—is worth the creative price.
Told in broad strokes with a swift-moving script by Dustin Lance Black that can be prone to cringe-worthy scenes (the small town, suicidal queer kid who can’t run away to the big city because he’s in a wheelchair most definitely should have been cut), Milk as a whole is more than the sum of its cheesy missteps. As with Charles Burnett’s Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation I’m willing to forgive the blunders because the images are so strikingly inventive, because the director has such sheer passion for his story. Van Sant, like Burnett, combines a master’s expertise with a child’s sense of play.
Deftly, he weaves actual archival footage (often seen through the POV of the lead character’s camera lens), archival photos (including snapshots passed around in Milk’s camera shop), and news reports and interviews from the 70s (that Milk and his confidants watch on TV) with the footage from the San Francisco-based shoot where Van Sant and his crew recreated Milk’s store in its original location. The period costume and production design are meticulous—so much so that you can actually feel the Bay Area itself come out as a character. Van Sant and his longtime DP Harris Savides (Zodiac) work as one, most noticeably in an incremental slo-mo towards the end when Milk is about to be shot, the freeze on his profile more spectacular than any blood spilled.
The entire film is one seamless melding of past into present, much like Prop 6 (a battle that makes up a big chunk of Milk and which would have banned gay and lesbian teachers and their allies from California’s public school system had it not been defeated) is paralleled to the current Prop 8. And the straight actors, especially Penn as Milk and James Franco as his lover Scott Smith (Penn and Franco give Brokeback Mountain’s Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal a run for their chemistry money), are all astounding. If ever there was a reason for Sean Penn to stop pursuing his career as a mediocre director, this performance is it. Penn is an absolute chameleon; a metamorphosis occurs in which not a trace of the actor can be seen. He captures Milk’s sweet vulnerability, the essence of his charm, to a degree that is nearly shamanistic. Even the miscast Alison Pill as campaign manager Anne Kronenberg and a way-too-old Josh Brolin as assassin Dan White—a role originally meant for Matt Damon who would have been pitch perfect—are thrilling, as is the reclamation of hope that was the crux of Milk’s life.
Screenwriter Black rightly focuses on the “personal is political” love story (“It wasn’t just about rights or electoral politics, it was about the fact that he was in love with Scott or he was in love with Jack Lira—and he wanted that to be okay. He didn’t want to be judged for it. He wanted to have the right to be himself ... politics for the sake of love” is how Black puts it in the press notes), of one man who never gave up against all odds. The opposite of an overnight success (Milk was in the closet until age forty, and the many years of losing election after election before reaching the San Francisco Board of Supervisors cost him his relationship with Smith), Milk was a hardworking everyman who only went into government because he believed he could make a positive difference in people’s lives. Politics transformed him, made him mature from an angry hippie reactionary to an open-minded optimist. After ticking off a list of gay community grievances in an early debate, an opponent wisely asks, “What are you for?” It was the last time Milk would be defeated in a campaign.
And yet, sadly, this American hero in the mold of MLK Jr. is known more for his violent death (shot point blank inside city hall by a colleague who would later claim the “Twinkie defense”) if he’s known at all. Smartly, Black sets out to rectify this by putting Milk’s life and love story at the forefront, virtually ignoring the lurid aspects of the tale. Killer Dan White is merely a footnote, not a raging right wing homophobe (he was too self-involved to be homophobic), but simply an unstable man who took every slight personally. When Milk is the only supervisor to take White up on the invitation to his son’s christening, he’s naively oblivious to the fact that Milk’s friendliness is also a calculated political move. Sappy? No more so than one of the lines Milk speaks into his tape recorder, a last will and testament to be played only “in the event of my assassination.”
“If a bullet should go through my head, let that bullet go through every closet door,” he states. Romantic and melodramatic and heartfelt and beautiful—that’s Milk, and Milk, in a nutshell.