At the film’s premiere… scores of anti-Proposition 8 protesters chanted outside the theater even as actors on the screen inside shouted pro-gay rights slogans from another era.
—“Back to the Ramparts in California” (2 November 2008)
Structured like a confession, Gus Van Sant’s Milk is also an homage and a declaration. At its start, Harvey (Sean Penn) sits at a kitchen table reading an autobiographical letter from a yellow legal pad, into a tape recorder. Dated 18 November 1978, it recounts his life just as it is about to end by assassination. The device allows the film to look back and forward, to consider the broad reach of Milk’s inspiration and influence. It also grants Milk, in his fictional form at least, a chance to tell his story, apart from the popular and political trappings that have long adorned it.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t bring its own popular and political valences. Arriving in theaters on the 30th anniversary of Milk’s death, it could not be more topical. Milk’s many achievements included the defeat of California’s Proposition 6 in 1978, sponsored by state senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) and loudly supported by anti-gay activist and orange juice pitchperson Anita Bryant. The successful campaign against Prop 6, which called for the firing of gay teachers and their supporters, has since been evoked in ongoing debates over Proposition 8, denying the right of gay couples to marry, which passed on 4 November of this year.
In offering such allusions, Milk urges optimism and action, even as it also recalls the loss of its charismatic subject. Toward this end, it provides historical context and imaginative detail, opening on archival (circa ‘60s) images of “gay raids” (cops herding men covering their faces into vans) and the Stonewall Riots, when protestors against such raids and worse took to Greenwich Village streets following Judy Garland’s death in 1970. The film lines up these events with Harvey’s own coming out: after years of living as a closeted Navy chief petty officer and research analyst for Bache & Co., he reinvents himself. The moment is rendered in romantic terms: he picks up the younger, prettier Scott Smith (James Franco), who advises, “I think you need to find a new scene, new friends.” In the next postcardy instant, they move cross-country to the Castro district. In 1972, they open a camera shop, tangle with homophobic neighbors, and offer some calculated PDA: the camera pulls up and back as they kiss, tenderly and righteously, on the sidewalk for all to see.
Visibility is key to Harvey’s political and social efforts. He and Scott use the shop as a headquarters for a ground-up campaign office, as Harvey runs for city supervisor—three times before he wins, at last, in 1977. Other young activists join the motley crew, including Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), who went on to found the Names Project, and Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), a self-described dyke-on-a-bike whose persuasive and promotional skills became legendary. As Harvey conjures new coalitions (in return for a boycott of Coors beer at gay bars, he convinces the Teamsters to hire gay truck drivers), he maintains that the best way to win support is to make himself—and by extension, gayness—manifest. (For more on Milk’s career and effects, see Rob Epstein’s excellent 1984 Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.)
Harvey’s insistence on visibility incites controversy and even pain for aides who aren’t yet out to their families, but his commitment to the concept is absolute, if complicated. The film shows at least one complication in his relationship with Jack Lira (Diego Luna), his boyfriend after Scott. Desperately needy, Jack is unstable and increasingly distracting in Harvey’s public life (during one fundraiser, he literally locks himself in a closet, a public tantrum layered in irony). Still, and against his own professional best interests, Harvey is loyal, and not unaware that his own needs are not entirely rational but yet understandable. Seeing his man taunted as “Taco” by people in his own circle, Harvey sighs. “When I come home to Jack,” he explains, “I don’t have to talk politics, I don’t have to talk at all.” Though Harvey uses the civil rights movement a model for the work he’s doing, he’s as confused and inarticulate about the multiplicity of prejudice as anyone else.
Milk‘s variations on this theme help to make it more compelling and original than the biopic conventions on which it relies. Harvey’s self-presentation—joyous, vibrant, and thrillingly confident even despite his feeling of vulnerability—illustrates most all of these variations. He encourages Cleve and other protégées to speak out, and repeatedly identifies himself for crowds hostile and adoring: “My name is Harvey Milk,” he proclaims, turning the tired fear of “gays” on its head, “And I want to recruit you!”
When he meets Dan White (Josh Brolin), the man who will shoot him and pro-gay Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) to death, Harvey is canny, flirtatious, and hard to resist. Dan, a former cop and fireman, married with a baby, appears both horrified and willing to do political business with his new colleague. Harvey suggests that Dan’s educable, that he may even be “one of us,” whether he knows it or not. As Harvey’s popularity grows, Dan becomes bitter and resentful, especially when his own initiatives on the board fall short. Their interactions take on an odious cast, as Dan looks more and more unhinged, his brow furrowed, his eyes furtive. (Because you know that in real life, his attorney will mount the infamous “Twinkie Defense,” these obvious images only underscore the fictional Dan’s profound dysfunction.)
As a narrative mechanism, Dan seems weak. But that might also be a function of Harvey’s brilliance. As performed by Sean Penn, he is charming, sly, and convincing, a perfect politician. But he’s also an effective object and subject of desire, passionate and compassionate. Appreciating and also interrogating such dynamic multiplicity, Milk serves as a provocative measure of past and present possibilities.