It is impossible for me to separate Gus Van Sant’s MILK from the political climate in which it is being released. Watching footage of the homosexual community conducting mass protests in the 70s carries a particular weight when the same kinds of protests are happening just down the street from the theater. Had the vote on Proposition 8 delivered a different outcome, MILK would be seen as a celebration of the roots of the movement that finally granted rights to the homosexual community. However, Prop 8 passed, and stripped homosexuals of the right to marry after having the right for only six months. It was a crushing defeat, but after watching a film chronicling Milk’s incredible foresight and optimism, it might now be seen as a victory. In 2000, California voters passed a measure that guaranteed that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California.” It won by 22 points. In 2008, Prop 8 passed by just 4 points.
Milk understood the power of small victories. Change happens very slowly. He himself ran for San Francisco District Supervisor three times before finally being elected in 1977. Milk was a charismatic community organizer who earned respect and gained power slowly, not quickly. He started with a block, then a district, then a community. Milk was a champion of grass roots campaigning and activism. He realized if you could mobilize the gay community, it granted them power as a collective electorate.
Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk as a lovable optimist with a shrewd center. Penn’s performance is the backbone of the film and it is one of the best performances of his illustrious career. Penn’s range as an actor is remarkable. Watching MILK, it’s difficult to believe that he’s the same actor who brought such dark brutality to characters in MYSTIC RIVER and DEAD MAN WALKING. For Milk, there is no victory too small. Milk will attempt to charm and recruit everybody he encounters and his sincerity is difficult to resist. Emile Hirsch and James Franco contribute strong performances as well as fellow activists and campaign workers. One of the more difficult performances of the film is that of Dan White, played by Josh Brolin. Brolin is outstanding as a man deeply rooted in self loathing. White is a fellow City Supervisor, who grows to hate Milk. Brolin’s White is constantly self aware, trying desperately to smile and spew anti-gay rhetoric. Watch how Van Sant shoots him as he watches Milk on television. His face like a scared little boy sitting on the floor, his own shamed face reflecting off the glass, grimacing at the audacity these men have for not hating themselves as much as he does. For those familiar with the history of White and Milk’s relationship, you know how the film will end, but I’m glad Van Sant stayed with the story of Milk’s life rather than spending too much time on “The Twinkie Defense.”
Gus Van Sant’s career has been a balance of mainstream films (GOOD WILL HUNTING) and arthouse films (ELEPHANT, LAST DAYS). His sensibilities are perfect for MILK, a mainstream film that feels like an indie. The film is intercut with Milk speaking into a tape recorder, making a record should he be assassinated. Even while recording his last testament and faced with assassination, Harvey is unflappable: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door.” The real Harvey, ever so aware of the danger of being who he is, actually did make such a tape which can be heard in excerpt here:
Milk indeed was a symbol of a movement rather than a traditional politician. When Milk is mailed a death threat that includes a drawing of his severed body, he puts it on his refrigerator. To hide the drawing would give it power. He encouraged all his gay supporters to come out to their friends, families and co-workers. Van Sant handles that scene with great awareness, and the emotional impact of the decision to out one’s self is felt strongly.
Van Sant has created a powerful, engaging and timely film. It is, so far, the very best of 2008. The fight isn’t over, and as nice as it may have been to view MILK in the context of gay rights victory, it may serve better as a rallying point. After religious singer Anita Bryant champions successful anti-gay legislature, Milk gives a speech to an angry mob, saying “Anita Bryant didn’t win tonight. She brought us together.” That kind of optimism and spirit is both inspiring and rare.