Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Harvey Milk's date with history
Harvey Milk, an openly gay San Francisco politician, was assassinated in 1978 by fellow city supervisor Dan White. Even before Milk's life was cut short, he had become a gay icon, a man who committed his life to the gay rights movement, but who early on learned how to cross political lines. As a city supervisor, Milk worked with labor and with various minority groups to forge the beginnings of an unlikely coalition. If you want to see the best film about Milk, you'd do well to rent "The Times of Harvey Milk," a 1984 documentary that covers some of the same territory as "Milk," a new movie from director Gus Van Sant.
If you see "Milk," you'll discover that Sean Penn transforms himself into Milk, a New York sophisticate who moved to San Francisco when he was 40, beginning a new life of open gayness. Milk's arrival in San Francisco coincided with the transformation of the Castro into a gay center of gravity, a district that became an emblem of what can happen when concentrated groups of like-minded people want to express themselves -- not only in bars, streets and the privacy of their homes, but in the city's institutional life.
Aware that his career was provocative, Milk dictated his reflections into a tape recorder, leaving a tape that was to be played only in the event that he was murdered. Van Sant uses this conceit to hold the movie's disparate events together, and he's aided greatly by an Oscar-caliber performance from Penn. To play Milk, Penn puts aside the edge that he has brought to so many roles, as well as to his public persona. Milk may be the most likable character Penn has ever played. Milk mixed wit, kindness and a sense of mischief with staunch commitment, and Penn captures all of that.
Van Sant, an openly gay director, seems to have two sides to his artistic life. In movies such as "Gerry," "Elephant," "Last Days" and "Paranoid Park," he employs a style that relies heavily on silences and on images that seem to float past us; these movies tend to turn audiences inward, as if their images were opening doors to the subconscious. "Milk" moves in the opposite direction. It's less driven by mood than by Milk's dynamism and the tumultuous events that surrounded him. As if further to ground his movie, Van Sant uses some real footage -- of anti-gay, orange juice queen Anita Bryant, for example -- and sticks closely to the historical record.
We get to understand Harvey Milk, but the same can't be said for Dan White, played by Josh Brolin. White seems an ambivalent man who couldn't keep up with the times, a supervisor who stood for the heterosexual status quo and what he viewed as working-class values. At one point, Milk wonders if White might be suppressing his gayness. Whatever troubled White, he seems lost and angry, frustrated that he can't do for his constituency what Milk did for his; i.e., infuse it with a sense of hope and optimism.
Penn's isn't the only interesting performance. I don't think I've ever seen James Franco play a character as centered as Scott Smith, the lover with whom Milk moved to San Francisco. And Emile Hirsch proves flighty and then reliable as Cleve Jones, a representative of the kind of younger gay men for whom coming out was less difficult than for those in Milk's generation. Jones became part of Milk's inner circle. So did Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill), a no-nonsense pragmatist who managed Milk's successful campaign for supervisor, his fourth attempt at landing the job. A troubled Hispanic lover (Diego Luna) brings a touch of tragedy into Milk's personal life.
The movie ultimately hones in on a battle over Proposition 6, a ballot proposal that would have banned gay teachers from working in California's public schools. Because Milk was political, the movie may become a rallying point for those who want to topple another California proposition, the recently passed Proposition 8 which bans gay marriage.
"Milk" doesn't necessarily bring a strong new point of view to its material. But the movie will introduce "Milk" to a wider audience than any documentary could. And if it has a message, it's this: If you want to be part of the public discourse, you have to roll up your sleeves and work. Harvey Milk's life ended tragically, but he seems to have fully met his moment. He shrewdly recognized an opportunity, seizing it with conviction and, yes, with pleasure, too.