A film review by Craig J. Koban

MILK jjj

2008, R, 128 mins.

Harvey Milk: Sean Penn / Cleve Jones: Emile Hirsch / Dan White: Josh Brolin / Jack Lira: Diego Luna / Scott Smith: James Franco

Directed by Gus Van Sant / Written by Dustin Lance Black.

All men are created equal. No matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words.”

- Harvey Milk


I have always found the fundamentalist religious arguments against homosexual rights to be intellectually lazy and equal parts inane.  The most frequently scripted validation of it is that the lifestyle is an offensive affront to heterosexual unions.  My response to those anti-gay rights supporters has always been in the form of a simple question that no one has ever been able to cogently answer: What have gay people ever done to harm anyone?   

To understand my valid point, consider one sly, but crucial, moment in the new period biopic, MILK, where an openly gay San Franciscan town supervisor debates the erroneousness of California's infamous Propostion 8, which would have – if passed – made it legal for anyone to terminate a person’s employment as a teacher based on their sexuality (or, more simply put, legalized homophobia and gay bashing).  The staunch political advocate for passing the bill goes out of his way to state how a gay teacher would engage in a secret hidden agenda to turn all of his/her students into homosexuals.  Harvey Milk, using his forthright and easy-going humor and disposition, responds logically that teachers teach subjects, like math, calculus, and science; they don't propagandize their sexual proclivities.  “If it were true that children emulate their teachers,” Milk dryly points out, “then we’d have a lot more nuns running around in the world!” 

Harvey Milk’s life was one marked by courageous and determined achievements in the arena of civil rights, which were made all the more timely and tragic with his assassination on November of 1978.  During a time of rampant and oftentimes vindictive homophobia that subjugated the gay community as a whole, his accomplishments became the stuff of martyrdom.  When he moved from New York City to San Francisco in 1972 (amid a huge migration of gay men to the Castro District of the city) he was anything but a ruthlessly unwavering politician.  He opened up a camera shop with his gay lover and hoped to simply eek out a living as a businessman.  However, upon arrival to the Bay area and seeing the unquestionably terrible treatment that the local homosexual community were receiving (largely from the police), he decided that the prevailing attitudes and laws needed to be changed…. and he would be the man to bring it about…even if he initially looked like a penniless hippie without an iota of political street cred. 

He did what all leaders do that belong to a suppressed minority: he organized the masses.  He stood on street corners, bullhorn in hand and atop of wooden crates, to speak out publicly about bigotry and prejudice.  His masterstroke achievement was forming alliances with other suppressed groups of people (from union members and other minorities like Latinos, blacks, etc.) to form an alliance with a common cause.  He had the noble belief that neighborhoods promoted unity among its people and that Castro was a place that could be a self-contained epicenter to meet the needs of all of its residents.  In many ways, he was not just a gay rights activist as he was a persona that stood for increased government responsibility to its people in the form of supporting liberation and rights to people who collectively suffer.  Imperative to his philosophy was that all people have the opportunity to live their life with absolute integrity and pride.   

He was not any overnight success.  He ran for San Francisco’s Board of Governor’s three times before finally being elected in 1977.  He championed and campaigned for gay rights ordinances, even when faced with the increasing scrutiny of staunch anti-gay blabber mouths and bigots like singer Anita Bryant, who went to great lengths to label the homosexual lifestyle as toxic and un-Godly.  Milk stood stoically and respectfully against such ignorant figures of hate and his remorsefully short 11-month term in office proved to be a watershed time period for gay rights as a whole.  Unfortunately, it came crashing down during a time of rousing personal and political successes with his murder at the hands of Dan White, another city supervisor who at the time resigned from office, but wanted his job back.  When he didn’t get his request, he took out his warped sense of betrayal and entitlement out on both Milk and the city’s Mayor, George Mascone.  Perhaps the most shocking and deplorable footnote on Milk’s brief, but illustrious, career was that White was acquitted of murder by a jury of white, middle class San Franciscans, mostly Catholic, but was inexplicably found guilty of just manslaughter (no gays or minorities were allowed to serve on the jury).  White received a scant seven years and only served five.  However, perhaps some twisted form of poetic justice caught up with him, as he committed suicide a year after his release. 

This seems like an obnoxiously long build up to Gus Van Sant’s biopic of Harvey Milk, but it’s crucial to give readers a sense of the man’s impressive accomplishments alongside his deeply tragic setbacks.   With a respectably strong, involving, and personal script by Dustin Lance Black, MILK frames the politician’s brief life as a pseudo-rags-to-riches tale of one intensely disaffected and disenfranchised 40-year-old hippie to that of a national symbol that loved his people into action.  Of course, we get all of the requisite and more routine aspects of most standard biopics (his relationships and flings – the least inspired aspect of the film – alongside his struggles to gain acceptance and a place of respectability), but the arc of MILK is one that paints its title character as one that looked out for the interests of troubled people in general.  Yes, gay rights meant the most to him, but he could also be characterized in the larger realm as a man that cared about the plight of the rights of people in general, regardless of race, gender orientation, religion, or sexual orientation.  What Sant’s low key direction and Black’s evocative script do is to bring all of this to the forefront: I am sure that most viewers – gay or straight – will find MILK moving for the way winningly encompasses this man’s perseverance and triumphs. 

In the film Milk (as portrayed in a transformative performance by Sean Penn) is initially shown moving to San Francisco’s Castro District with his lover, Scott Smith (a decent, but stilted and underused, James Franco).  They spend their accumulated life savings on a camera store and it becomes a modest success.  The area is predominately becoming a haven for the gay community, but there still resides a hostile and unruly segment of the populace that detests Harvey and his kind.  Growing increasingly aware of this tide of swift anti-gay sentiment, Harvey decides to act and becomes an activist that develops a fairly loyal cult following, one of which is Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), who would go on to become one of Milk’s closet companions.   

We then see Milk’s meteoric and unlikely rise to public office, which, as stated, did not occur without setbacks.  Eventually, he would become the first openly gay city supervisor in the city's history and he took his political call with the utmost gravity.  He soon become systematically embroiled in one of the most debated civil rights legislations in the state’s history, Proposition 6.  Despite many of the prominent politicians that opposed the measure (like then State Governor Ronald Reagan), the battle for repelling the proposition was a heated and bitter one.  Eventually, Milk achieved a heartfelt victory here, but the bittersweetness of it was forever tainted by a vengeful killer’s bullet. 

If there were one thing that MILK does with a calculating precision then it would be the effortless way it contextualizes Milk’s story with more broad based ramifications.  The film's timing of release is almost too perfect in the way it conjures up very astringent recent memories of Proposition 8 (banning same sex marriage in California).  The fight against Proposition 6 in the film helps to place the audience at the emotional and political core of the whole gay rights debate that still, to this day, polarizes countries.  The struggles of Harvey Milk were indescribably tough, but he was a poster boy for a then fledging movement that wanted to stem to vicious tide of evangelical homophobia that tainted the US.  The more the religious right demonized homosexuals, the more Milk tried to humanized them in the minds of the public at large.  Seeing this film with a 2009 sensibility, it’s easy to see how things have simultaneously changed for the better and, regrettably, have not changed at all.  

The essence of Milk’s struggle still remains.  

The one main reason to see this film is for Sean Penn, who just may give his most revealing and tender performance as the slain activist.  Penn has always gained a ferocious reputation for playing fringe characters with thunderous intensity and gusto.  What’s so interesting here is that he does such a bravura job of shedding the typical fist clanged intensity and blood curdling bravado he has so often infused in his past characters.  Penn does use makeup to help himself submerge further into the physical guise of Milk (he made his nose longer and receded his hairline a bit), but his real coup de grace is how he so securely and passionately gets into the disarming charm, nail-biting wit, and joy this man had with his cause.  For an actor who is always credited for the gnarly veracity he brings to every role, Penn has rarely become lost in a character like he has with Milk.   

The film’s other – and, for my money, more tricky and difficult – performance is that of Josh Brolin as Dan White, the man who let his jealousy and tormented mind selfishly end Milk’s life.   White was a seemingly straight member of the Board of Supervisors, a rigid Catholic who thought that gayness was a unpardonable abomination, and a man that perhaps was so adamant against homosexuals because he may have been a closeted one himself.  When he resigned from office he became a disastrously unbalanced alcoholic that eventually let the world feel his pain by robbing it of two prominent political figures.  What Brolin does so convincingly is to reveal the subtleness of this man’s complex and perverse repulsion not only with the homosexual agenda, but also with his own inner beliefs and leanings.   His finest moment occurs during a notorious evening when the inebriated White goes on a drunken tirade against Milk; it’s here where Brolin finds the eerily unbalanced heart of a man whose inner demons can only lead to catastrophe. 

With all of its rock steady and emotionally charged performances and Gus Van Sant’s unpretentious and underscored direction, MILK sometimes negligibly feels like an "important" film, so much so that it somewhat stunts any emotional connection we can forge with the human relationships in the film (sometimes, MILK feels more like a recruitment picture than a deeply heartfelt drama).  Moreover, Black’s overall script sticks to a largely familiar and routine template for this type of genre film: At face value, it’s a rudimentary David versus Goliath story of an underdog achieving triumph, which is then shattered in tragedy.  This paint-by-numbers presentation of the main character frequently made me feel like I was only getting a cursory examination of him.  At 129 minutes, MILK feels regrettably broad and vague on certain details.  It asks us, from the get go, to applaud this man’s courage and strength of mind, whereas a stronger and more assured script would have delicately allowed viewers to develop a respect and admiration for Milk on their own accord.   

Perhaps even weaker are the film’s meager attempts at portraying the intimate relationships that Harvey was involved in.  Certain characters, like Franco’s, lack embellishment, whereas others, like the one portrayed by Diego Luna, seem too simplistically broad.  Luna plays Jack Lira, a Mexican American who becomes utterly fixated with Milk, but inevitably grows to be suspicious and neurotically jealous of how much Milk favors politics over a loving relationship.  A story arc between the pair predictably builds to a moment that is somewhat too heavy-handed in gut-wrenching sentiment for its own good. 

Still, despite some of it’s obvious faults, it’s hard to deny that MILK is a honorable tribute to a unlikely political hero, whose life still sends ripples to present day culture.  Even though I found the film sort of rigidly structured and formulaic, MILK has a nice level of deftness: it has sincerity and an unflashy showmanship, which acts as a nice balance for the provocative and showy figure that permeates the story.  On a level of intentions, the film achieves its goals by telling an inspiring story of one man that tried to find legitimacy for his identity and people during a period when socio-political realities made it next-to-impossible.  As a fitting and stirring memorial to Harvey Milk, the film is a modest triumph…and sometimes even a bit ominous.  An opening moment highlights this perfectly as it shows Milk, speaking into a tape recorded, stating: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”  

Few political figures have rarely come off as so self-aware, poignantly hopeful, and creepily prophetic.

  H O M E