Gus Van Sant and Harvey Milk were always destined to seem either an ideal hook-up or a sort of studio-contrived shotgun wedding. That the most famed and acclaimed openly gay filmmaker in the US should helm the long-in-development biopic about the first openly gay man to herald the gay cause in US politics seems obvious until you start to consider the complicated nature of Van Sant’s previous contributions to gay cinema.
I more or less grew up with Van Sant’s early features, enthralled by their visual poetics and oddball humour, their nipple-twisted Americana and palpable affection for all the world’s lost boys. By the time of My Own Private Idaho Van Sant’s rendering of Portland’s runaway male hustler scene—centered as it was around the tenderly compelling and, it would appear, not so gay River Phoenix—practically made me want to be gay. Van Sant’s gay boys were antiheroes, outlaws, non-conformists, vulnerable adventurers, their sexuality tied directly to their outsider status. I found them cool beyond measure.
But what, by contrast, really matters in the story of Harvey Milk? Today more than ever, the core of Milk’s accomplishment is the very antithesis of Van Sant’s outsider chic. Milk’s bold and perilous first steps as San Francisco city supervisor, his nationally recognized efforts to stake out an unabashedly gay presence in the era of Anita Bryant reactionism, were designed to lead the community into the light of the mainstream, and the recent defeat of gay marriage in California feels like a direct attack on that legacy. To have same-sex partnership legally recognized should be a fundamental right, but such an ethos of normalization should not be confused with the sort of romance or shadow side of gay culture so beguilingly evoked in Mala Noche, Van Sant’s debut, or Idaho.
This tension between sensibilities may explain why, rather than aligning itself to his more experimentally-minded, equally death-haunted quartet of Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park, Milk feels more akin to Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, Van Sant’s earlier stabs at multiplex acceptance. Yet I think this is finally a more effective movie than either. Milk needed to be made for the biggest possible audience—to do otherwise would be to miss the entire point of this story—and Van Sant deserves credit for recognizing this. His flexibility as a filmmaker is in my books something to admire.
Written by Dustin Lance Black, the movie is structured around audio recordings Milk made when he began to fear for his life—threats of assassination had been made for some time. It’s a useful convention, allowing us to cut to the chase more often than not, and allowing the voice of Sean Penn, in pleasingly nasal-fey Noo-Yawk, to invitingly guide us in. The movie’s concerned solely with the final eight years or so of Milk’s life, the period that begins with his picking up of the attractive, much younger Scott Smith (James Franco) in an NYC subway station on the night of Milk’s 40th birthday.
Falling love with Smith was the catalyst that allowed Milk to give up his semi-closeted financial sector existence and go west to a rainbow wonderland waiting to erupt from under a blanket of stale conservatism. A Republican and late-blooming hippy of sorts, Milk goes from suited to shaggy, sees opportunities for gay consumers to gain foothold in his new community, and opens a little camera shop on Castro Street. This section of the movie ends with a magnificent crane shot of Milk and Smith necking in broad daylight. It’s glorious, the first crest of a wave of enthrallment over new hopes. It also features a telling detail: as in the subway pick-up scene, Milk is conspicuously positioned below Smith. His affection for his boyfriends tends toward the adulatory.
Smith doesn’t stick around, leaving Milk to exercise his generally poor judgment with regards to lovers, culminating in a disastrous partnership with a needy Chicano played by Diego Luna. But buoyed by San Fran’s brimming gay underground, Milk is already well on his way to triumph and that fateful retribution. His ascent into municipal politics is highly fraught and makes for superb drama. He’s trying always to bond gays together, controversially declaring privacy, ie: the closet, an antiquated luxury in times of violent bigotry. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” was his clever rallying cry. And his charisma is awesome, his arguments persuasive, his sense of populism shrewd—he gained his supervisor position as much through the promise of legislating against abandoned dog shit as through gay rights.
Van Sant collaborates again here with cinematographer Harris Savides, who previously wrought San Francisco in the 70s to great effect in Zodiac. Milk’s dynamic use of archival footage serves it well, making the spirit of the times come alive. But the decisive force in this project, what will make or break it for audiences, are the performances, and Penn is on fire here. The role of Milk grants the volatile actor and activist permission to express his moral fervor in a fresh, invigorating context. He mimics Milk’s peculiar fist shaking with a goofy sort of grace, milking it, so to speak, with great aplomb. He speechifies with great emotional dexterity, yet brings a wonderfully conspiratorial glee to quieter scenes of political negotiation. He’s also very funny. Josh Brolin’s Dan White challenges him with the tired old theological arguments against homosexuality. “Can two men reproduce?” White asks. “No,” Milk replies, with the warmest and slyest of smiles. “But god knows we keep trying.”
In a superlative and teeming supporting cast that includes lovingly realized turns from Franco, very sexy and subtle in his grudging support, and from Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill, Brolin demands special mention. His embodiment of profoundly conflicted homophobia swings from sympathetic to repulsive with an absolute minimum of fuss. In a grim, sobering way he grounds the picture. Which is to say he represents an element that doubtlessly still lingers in Milk’s audience, a prejudice and resentment that can’t be quelled by the comforts of increasing familiarity with gay culture alone. And it’s because of this that I sincerely hope the Dan Whites of the world see this movie.