Milk takes place during such a remarkable social and political moment that the focus on the title character is almost unwelcome. The film is weakest as a biopic, but the context is fascinating, and Gus Van Sant presents it with elegance and clarity. If you’re not interested in the history, that still leaves a set of truly remarkable performances as a major draw. This is sure to be one of Oscar season’s highlights.
Watching Milk weeks after the dramatic failure to defeat Proposition 8 in California — which would have been a landmark victory for gay marriage — is eerie. A hefty part of the film is dedicated to chronicling Harvey Milk’s 1978 fight against Proposition 2, which would have fired all of California’s gay teachers, as well as any public school employees who supported them. The initiative went down — thirty years ago — and it was chilling to watch Milk fight the same battles that played out across the state just this year. Those who thought it a disgrace that the anti-Prop 8 ads steadfastly refused to utter the word “gay” will be interested to learn that activists were pushing the same (arguably gutless) tactics decades ago.
Harvey Milk himself became a crusader out of necessity. As played by Sean Penn here, he doesn’t have a spotlight-seeking bone in his body. Closeted into his 40s, he laments that “I haven’t done a thing I’m proud of” — still, his transition into activism seems less like a way to remedy that than like a reasonable way to make things better for himself and his community. He moves to the Castro with his boyfriend (James Franco) and buys a camera shop. When he encounters hostility, he realizes that the gay population in the neighborhood is booming, and that numbers mean power. He gets people to enthusiastically support gay-friendly businesses and shun the rest. That quickly gets the Teamsters on his side. Soon, he is the de facto “Mayor of Castro Street.”
Running for office was not an opportunistic power grab, but a logical next step. It’s not that becoming a San Francisco supervisor would give him the literal power to end discrimination and police abuse, though it would probably help. It’s that the idea of a gay man in elected office would carry tremendous symbolic weight. Milk was a relatively straightforward guy, but he appreciated the importance of symbolism and public perception. One of his biggest contributions was the notion that if people know real, flesh-and-blood gays — in person, rather than as abstract concepts — they are less likely to vote to strip them of their rights.
The film presents this with impeccable polish. This is definitely Van Sant in mainstream mode — think Good Will Hunting rather than Gerry or Paranoid Park — but mainstream Van Sant still knows to avoid pandering, as well as making his protagonists into soulless pillars of moral rectitude. This is the story of a civil rights movement driven by actual people, with actual people’s lives hanging in the balance. There’s a minor subplot involving a suicidal kid trapped in both a wheelchair and a hateful home that threatens to send the film into overblown hysterics, but the way it plays out is tasteful and quiet, serving to highlight what’s at stake here.
Milk occasionally resorts to annoying biopic conventions. Is it mandatory for these movies to have a framing device? And if there must be a framing device, must it be as cheap and momentum-draining as the protagonist sitting at a table, speaking into a tape recorder? The inclusion of Milk’s love interests seems obligatory: Franco’s character is a cliche (though the performance is awesome), and the whiny brat played by Diego Luna nearly derails the film. Van Sant should have focused in even tighter on the mechanics of what its charactetrs accomplished.
Sean Penn will probably win an Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, and it really is something to behold: I’m deeply skeptical of these screen “impersonations,” but Penn’s is totally immersive, and not at all affected. Equally deserving is Josh Brolin — has any actor ever had this amazing a two-year stretch? — playing murderous, homophobic Supervisor Dan White. Brolin is a coiled spring of uncertain tension and frustration; the film is gratifyingly ambiguous about the character, never quite endorsing Milk’s tentative suggestion that he might be wrestling with his own sexuality.
Milk is a fascinating, perfectly-timed bit of history, top-shelf entertainment, and graceful as polemics go. It might be one of the most artful liberal message movies you’ll ever see.