Milk tells powerful story, but doesn’t reduce Harvey to a figurehead

Under the expert direction of Gus Van Sant, Sean Penn paints a portrait of a complicated man in volatile times.

By Matt Zakosek

The right movie for the right moment, Milk is Gus Van Sant’s best film since My Own Private Idaho and the greatest queer-themed film since Brokeback Mountain. The speculation that, had it been released earlier, it could have influenced the outcome of the vote on Proposition 8 is not unreasonable. It is that powerful. If Sean Penn doesn’t garner an Oscar nod for his role as Harvey Milk, the U.S.’s first openly gay public official, his nomination for I Am Sam should definitely be rescinded. Penn expertly portrays Milk as both the symbol of a movement and as an individual in his own right.

Most of us know the facts by now. Harvey Milk, the scourge of anti-gay rights crusaders (like the former beauty queen Anita Bryant), was shot and killed by his fellow San Francisco city supervisor, Dan White, at age 48. And even if you did not know the history, that is no spoiler. Dustin Lance Black’s script has Milk recounting the events of his life in anticipation of the assassination he suspects is impending. It’s not the most original concept, but it elevates the film slightly above standard biopic territory, and provides Penn with the solitary moments where he does his best work.

That doesn’t mean Penn can’t play off of his co-stars. Milk’s relationship with Scott Smith (James Franco) is especially moving. Though they ended their romantic relationship before Milk’s final campaign for city supervisor, Black’s script has them reconnecting at several pivotal points in their lives (including, it would seem, the night before Milk’s assassination). Their deep friendship, which transcends the throes of lust and a 20-year age difference, is more convincing than the traditional bonds represented in most Hollywood biopics–A Beautiful Mind comes to mind.

Milk is worlds better than that by-the-numbers weepie, but in the pantheon of Van Sant projects, it falls closer to the convention of Good Will Hunting than the weirdness of Paranoid Park. Still, some of the director’s avant-garde flourishes remain. A colorful montage of Milk’s political slogans recalls the eclectic title cards of My Own Private Idaho. And as always, Van Sant’s skill with young performers shines through. As Milk protégé Cleve Jones, Emile Hirsch has Coke-bottle glasses and a laughable ’70s haircut—but, more importantly, an entirely believable trajectory from political lightweight to indignant activist. When Milk hands him a bullhorn to placate a crowd on the verge of riot, it’s a thrilling example of passing the torch. Jones knows just how to channel their anger into action, chanting “Anita/A liar/We’ll set your hair on fire!” as he marches the group to the steps of City Hall.

Of course, as my friend Jerry Pritikin, a Harvey Milk associate, informed me, “That march didn’t end at City Hall. They kept going.” And Pritikin should know, having snapped a nationally syndicated photo of Milk referenced in the film (though the chronology places its publication a day too early). Pritikin had a few more quibbles with the accuracy of Milk’s timeline, but he gave a big thumbs-up to the cast, noting Josh Brolin’s eerie resemblance to Milk’s real-life killer.

There was no love lost between Harvey Milk and San Francisco’s gay establishment; in a memorable scene, he is urged not to run by a queer Power Couple who find his political inexperience a liability. “Harvey, we’re like the Catholic Church. We love converts. We just don’t make them Pope the next day,” they complain, as Franco’s Smith provides eye candy by swimming nude in the pool. Their skepticism doesn’t deter Milk, who wages his first (unsuccessful) campaign shortly after. “By the way, I peed in the pool,” Franco quips as they leave the property—an apt quote, since Milk pissed all over other people’s expectations of him.

The comparisons between Milk and other great men are irresistible. Like Abraham Lincoln, it took him several tries before hitting his political sweet spot; like Martin Luther King, Jr., he gave a voice to a minority that had long been denied their share of power. Milk deserves credit for hinting that some of that power may have gone to his head. “You sound like Mayor Daley,” a colleague notes in one of the film’s final scenes. It isn’t a compliment. Minutes later, Harvey Milk is shot and killed, in a tastefully rendered but emotionally devastating scene.

The story, of course, doesn’t end there. As the end titles inform us, White’s ridiculously lenient five-year sentence for manslaughter (helped by his lawyer’s infamous “Twinkie defense”) prompted a night of mob action, including the torching of 12 San Francisco police cruisers. Someone get Van Sant’s agent on the phone. The White Night Riots would be the perfect follow-up to this fascinating chronicle of queer history. One caveat: Get it into theaters before the 2010 midterm elections.