You’ll sit gawp-faced at “Milk” as the past echoes the present in eerily unfortunate ways.
And you may come away thinking – rightly or wrongly – that if Gus Van Sant’s biopic of late San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk had been released a month earlier, California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, never would have stood a chance of passing.
You can’t think of Van Sant’s films on a conventional spectrum that runs from best to worst. Well, you can, but that seems kind of simplistic. Rather, think of Van Sant’s filmography as a triangle.
In one corner, you have films like “Gerry,” “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park,” representing his most experimental (and often most pretentious, least watchable) impulses. In another, there are the drastically conventional studio films: “Good Will Hunting,” “Finding Forrester.” The third corner mixes the two and that’s where things get interesting: “Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho,” “To Die For” – and now “Milk.”
“Milk” dramatizes the life of Milk, which was so capably told in 1984’s Oscar-winning documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk.” Thanks to a performance by Sean Penn that has to stand as an early favorite for every award imaginable, “Milk” brings the late gay politician to life with a depth and dimension that makes his death seem like that much more of a loss, 30 years after the fact.
Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay begins with Milk sitting at the kitchen table in his Castro District apartment in San Francisco, talking into a tape recorder “in case anything happens to me.” We pick up his story in 1970, with Harvey, a closeted insurance executive, picking up a good-looking young man named Scott Smith (James Franco) in a New York subway. It’s an hour before midnight, an hour until Harvey turns 40 and they wind up in bed in Harvey’s apartment.
“Forty-years-old – and I’ve never done a thing to be proud of,” he moans as midnight strikes. So he takes Scott’s advice and makes a change – and we find him, two years later, a New Yorker transplanted to San Francisco. He’s grown his hair into a ponytail, and added a beard; he opens a camera store in the Castro and becomes a happily out gay man. He also begins to get a vision of the kind of political power that might be wielded if gay people could identify themselves as an influence group.
Milk wasn’t the first to preach gay power but he was one of the first to tap into it as a resource. Through several unsuccessful candidacies for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the state assembly, he and a cadre of friends sharpened their political skills and built their network of contacts. He finally won his race for supervisor after San Francisco changed its charter to eliminate at-large elections and designate supervisors for specific districts. Milk, the self-proclaimed Mayor of Castro Street, suddenly found himself earning the title in real life.
Van Sant balances Milk’s career with his personal life, including the eventual collapse of his relationship with Scott Smith and his turbulent romance with an unstable lover named Jack (Diego Luna). The film’s final section focuses on a nationwide battle over gay rights that swept the country in 1977, led by orange-juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant.
The film’s emotional culmination is the struggle over California’s 1977 referendum, Proposition 6, which would have allowed the firing of gay schoolteachers, as well as the removal of anyone who supported them. Milk became the public face of the fight to defeat the law, standing up to the forebears of the forces that pushed through Prop 8 three weeks ago.
The film’s heart and soul rest in Penn’s performance, which has feeling, wit, intelligence and muscle. Penn’s Harvey Milk, like the real man, is nobody’s idea of a sissy. He is a canny fighter, a passionate politician, radiating an almost zenlike understanding of how to play the game – as well as knowing when to change the rules and when to make up rules of his own.
The supporting cast is fine, though Franco’s Scott Smith and Emile Hirsch’s Cleve Jones, despite fine work, feel like stock characters: Franco as the understanding lover who gets tired of playing second fiddle to Milk’s career; Hirsch as the former hustler who finds his voice as a political activist.
The one actor who pops out is Josh Brolin. Fresh from capturing George W. Bush’s foxy, folksy self-absorption, he does a 180 as uptight prig Dan White, who eventually winds up killing Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Brolin gives White a feeling of unhealthy pressurization: He’s tightly wrapped, ready to explode, repressed (closeted, Milk would say).
Van Sant incorporates archival footage from the ’70s and recreates famous moments. The handheld grainy footage gives it a rawer aesthetic, though Van Sant isn’t going for a documentary feel but, rather, mixing things up.
Harvey Milk was an American hero, a leader of a once-unpopular cause that ultimately went mainstream. The intolerance he battled obviously still exists, and “Milk” is a reminded of how much he is missed.