Gus Van Sant’s Milk is a marvel. It may not be quite the best film of the year (I can think of a couple titles that strike me as better filmmaking), but it probably is the most important and most telling one. It’s that rare case where the importance of the subject matter and the importance of the film are on equal footing. Part of this may be wholly accidental on the part of Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, but that hardly matters in terms of the film’s impact.
However intended, its tale of the first openly gay politician waging a battle against a discriminatory amendment, Proposition 6 (which would have allowed teachers—and anyone who supported them—to be fired based on sexual orientation), does coincide with the passage of California’s discriminatory Proposition 8. And it’s eerie and unsettling to encounter the historical arguments for Proposition 6 and realize that they’re absolutely interchangeable with those for Proposition 8. In this regard, Milk poses the question, “Is this as far as we’ve come in terms of tolerance and acceptance?” That the film also happens to be about a politician “selling” hope (“You gotta give ‘em hope”)—and given the results of the recent presidential election—is either happenstance or a feeling for the mood of the day. Regardless, it doesn’t alter the power of the film or its message.
Van Sant, who has spent the last several years making navel-gazing movies that I find verging on unwatchable, has managed to recreate the world of Harvey Milk from 1970 until his (and Mayor George Moscone’s) assassination in 1978 with seeming effortlessness. The film, which includes some archival footage, truly seems to inhabit those times, and that’s a significant accomplishment—as is the fact that Black’s screenplay compacts a complex story into just a bit over two hours. The film starts off by setting the milieu of the era and the place of gays in it, only to jump ahead (copying the opening of Rob Epstein’s wonderful 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk) to news footage of Diane Feinstein announcing the murders of Milk and Moscone to the press. Milk then explores how this came to pass and what it meant and means.
Working from recordings that Milk left behind in case he was assassinated (he always knew it was a possibility), the film is structured around Milk making those tapes—paying particular attention to his stated hope, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” What is most impressive about the resulting film is the manner in which it balances Milk’s private life with his public one, how it manages to encompass Milk the man, Milk the political activist and Milk the martyr for gay rights. That it pulls this off without seeming to try too hard and without making the three aspects of the character so interrelated as to be almost indistinguishable is little short of a miracle. Certain things that make the film work so well can be pinpointed, such as Milk pegging anti-gay activist Anita Bryant’s seeming victory—of getting anti-gay legislation through in Florida—as really a loss for her because of what it would start, which meshes with the aftermath of Milk’s own death. But the film’s cumulative power and its humanity needs no dissection.
The film approaches Harvey Milk in much the same manner that Milk himself chose to attack Proposition 6. Milk’s call was for gays to come out of the closet and reveal themselves so that they would have an identity, so that they weren’t faceless bogeymen, but actual people: people their opponents knew. The film makes Milk into someone you feel you know—and you understand him and see him from every angle, not just the flattering ones. There’s a true sense of a whole human being here: a charismatic, deeply committed man, whose personal life might, on occasion, have been less than orderly, but whose basic decency is hard to question.
Bringing this to life falls in no small measure to Sean Penn. Penn is an actor I often find too ham-fisted for my taste. But his performance here is an absolute revelation. I had no idea—or even suspicion—that he had this performance in him. At no point did I feel I was watching Sean Penn act. I felt that he really was Harvey Milk on that screen—and there’s sufficient archival footage of Milk to be able to make that call. It’s astonishing. The whole cast is good—and each tends to be uncannily like their real-life counterparts—but Penn is the one holding it all in place.
Yes, I’m approaching Milk from my own political perspective, and I’m fully aware that many people are apt to be outraged by the film’s politics and its sexuality. There will be those who are put off by the content. While the film has no explicit sex in it, the same-sex intimacy is very pronounced, and handled in as straightforward a manner as if it involved heterosexual couples. There are those who will hate its agenda—and yes, it has one—but for others, it will be a powerfully positive experience both for its history lesson and for its relevance today. See it—and then seek out the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and see Milk again. You’ll probably want to. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.