Harvey Milk was more than a politician. He was more than a grass roots illustration of San Francisco’s struggling gay rights movement and underrepresented population. He was much more than a cultural icon, much more than a martyred victim of a senseless and still slightly unbelievable crime. What Harvey Milk represents is truly present in Gus Van Sant’s stellar telling of the last years of his life. While Milk never excuses the man’s sexuality, or makes it the sole reason for his rise and untimely fall, it does argue that his outrageous outsider status gave him a unique perspective on the role of the government and its people in a democracy. It’s a lesson we could all re-learn today.
As a closeted middle aged man in Manhattan, Harvey Milk is desperate for something better. After meeting up with future companion Scott Smith, the decision is made – they will both travel to San Francisco, where the Castro District is buzzing with growing gay pride. While still the subject of horrible homophobia, Milk’s corner camera store becomes a powerbase for a new kind of revolution – one surrounding human rights and their proper preservation. After running for elected office several times – and losing – Milk finally benefits from some redrawn districts. He is soon the first openly gay politician holding significant office in the United States. Unfortunately, his orientation and lack of political savvy put him in direct conflict with cowardly conservative Dan White. It’s a clash that will end in tragedy.
So much about Milk speaks to our current Prop 8 poisoned society that it should be studied by anyone wondering where hate and bigotry get their clear eyed cravenness. Mirroring the main character’s rise from activist to Establishment, director Gus Van Sant wisely juxtaposes archival footage of former Miss America and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant as part of the perspective. Militant in her narrow-minded opposition to equal rights, she’s Sarah Palin sent back in a time machine, a smiley faced whack job that preaches Christian charity while targeting her baseless Bible at an entire underclass. Her moral majority preaching, position as part of what will eventually be the religious right rejuvenation of the Republican Party, is frightening, and reminds us that Milk the man truly laid his life on the line for the cause.
Van Sant also illustrates the normalcy surrounding the crazed Castro, avoiding much of the scandal and sex games (bathhouses and discos are mentioned, but not visited) to show that Milk managed to attract thoughtful, appreciative people into his fold. James Franco is excellent as Smith, the true love of Harvey’s hectic life (and the one sacrifice necessary for the man to push forward). There is such warmth in the performance that the same sex scenes of romance become organic, not off-putting. Emile Hirsch also puts on the mince as a very fey and very frank escort who ends up as one of Milk’s main supporters. The rampant stereotyping in the film is easily forgiven, since Van Sant is merely recognizing kinds, not arguing that they were the only elements of San Francisco’s scene.
It’s no surprise, however, that the two strongest turns come from our two main players. Sean Penn disappears so completely into the role of Harvey Milk that we occasionally have to shock ourselves into remembering that we are not watching a documentary. There is no mannerism in the performance, no obvious attempts at acting. Instead, with a lilt in his voice and a twinkle in his tired eyes, he brings the myth maverick back down to Earth, infusing him with a spirit that’s infectious and endearing. We root for this man just as much as the people who elected him to office, and when the unfortunate end comes, we feel the pain just as much as they do.
But it’s Josh Brolin who has the much harder role as family man turned murderer Dan White. While clearly unhinged about some element of his life, Van Sant does a wonderful job of establishing motive outside the obvious homophobic approach. White is seen as a limited success, someone shuttled aside rather conveniently to make room for Milk’s rapid ascension. His projects are put off, and when he tries to rally support to stop certain policies, he often ends up on the short end of the stance. When California votes to repeal certain protections for homosexuals (yes, Prop 8 is nothing new in the state’s history), White is on the losing side of the outcome, and this puts him on a collision course with fate. Brolin shows us the slow burn and the phony façade. We know he will crack, and we’re afraid of how calm he’ll be when he finally does.
In Van Sant’s capable hands, history is reflected alongside fiction, moments of made-up interpersonal tensions underscoring the rising anger in the gay community. If there is a weak link among the main characters, it’s the second half arrival of Diego Luna as Jack Lira, a thickly accented Spaniard that becomes obsessed with Milk. Hanging onto his lover like a wounded whelp and complaining about unimportant things like dinner times and a “lack of fun”, he’s the fifth wheel amongst a group of concerned, caring activists. But thanks to the brilliance in Penn’s performance, and the way in which Van Sant systematically deconstructs the time, the place and the positions, Milk remains masterful. It’s the kind of smart, sensitive biography that does the subject and his spirit proud.
And yet the real question remains – why, in 2008, is the issue of gay rights seemingly back at square one? Why, in a nation that apparently embraces multiculturalism and ethnic diversity so openly and easily, are we still using sexuality and orientation as a means of making distinctions between protected classes? Milk argues that the God squad are the cause of all the clamor, and he was/is right. But apparently time was all the Jesus gang needed to turn the clock back to the dismal dark ages. Thirty years later, Harvey Milk remains a monumental political figure. That society has since rejected his rational call to arms speaks as much for his import as the lack of such leadership now.