Though it’s been out for a couple of weeks, the theater was packed last night for the showing of “Milk”, and it’s obviously so popular that the Alamo Drafthouse downtown had opened up both screens for it. And it definitely deserved that turnout, and not just because Harvey Milk is such an interesting character from history. I have my issues with some of Gus Van Sant’s choices in the past, but he turned out to be the perfect director for this movie for a couple of major reasons. The most obvious is that he’s comfortable with homosexuality and confident in his film-making, which meant that he portrayed the subculture of the 70s era Castro district with a realistic ease. But he also had the smarts to avoid certain traps of biopics that make them so often tedious and hard to watch. He avoided the tendency to render complicated real life people into stereotypes of pure evil or pure good, and he didn’t dwell in sensationalism.
I kept mentally comparing this biopic to the famous/infamous Tina Turner biopic “What’s Love Got To Do With It”, because the tension between Dan White and Harvey Milk is similar to the tension between Ike and Tina Turner—the characters don’t know what the audience does, which is that all this is coming to a violent climax. In “What’s Love”, the filmmakers took the cheap route with this in mind, and walked you through a morality tale that made Tina look like an angelic victim and Ike look like an inexplicable monster, and if you didn’t know the context of the movie, you might walk away wondering how in the hell such an angel loved such a monster to begin with. But Harvey Milk and Dan White are much more complex people in this movie, and he does this without detracting in the slightest from the heroism of Milk’s life and the tragedy of his death. If anything, Milk’s very human, flawed personality makes his end even more tragic, because you are seeing a person snuffed out, not some icon of heroism. Not that we see much of the actual snuffing out. The smartest choice Van Sant makes in the movie is probably the choice not to dwell on the scene where Dan White murders Harvey Milk, realizing that no display of violence is ever going to capture the swift, nonsensical nature of the act. By avoiding the bloodshed, he’s better able to drive home the message that the real tragedy is the big gaping hole left where Milk used to be.
Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk is the portrayal of a man who, having tasted gumption, goes full throttle and never really looks back. The typical Hollywood rebel is someone smoldering and often morose, and Milk is a total antidote to that. In Penn’s hands, Milk comes across as a man whose entire life is remade by rebelling against the closet and stepping into the sunlight. He never completely drops his nervous mannerisms, but he’s a man energized by just the sheer joy of living a life he thought wasn’t possible in his prior (and briefly rendered) life in New York. He’s also a chameleon who doesn’t even try to hide his absolute love of the political game, sliding right into favor-trading and P.R. stunts like a man born for it. That this stuff is the sleazy side that turns most people off politics doesn’t seem to faze him; if anything, using a little deceit to pull a political stunt causes him to go into a fit of back-patting. But he’s a man who easily distinguishes between the slick lies of campaign politics and the more serious and soul-destroying lies of our society.
I kept wondering if Josh Brolin is amused by the fact that he’s playing right wing villains in not just one, but two movies this year—Bush in “W.” and Dan White in “Milk”. For all that Penn deserves an Oscar nomination for absolutely killing as Harvey Milk , Brolin deserves a supporting actor nod for this portrayal. It’s a tough line to walk, showing the audience a Dan White who is both smoldering enough that you believe he can blow up and murder but also calm enough that people around him figure he’s mostly normal. Brolin pulls it off, seething with resentment over problems that remain a mystery, but still normal enough, if off-putting. Milk solipsistically assumes that White is a closet case, but there’s really no telling. White clearly suffered from a series of mental issues, and homobigots use this to distract from the main issue, which is that regardless of the source of White’s problems, he chose to focus his rage on that favorite right wing target, liberal San Francisco. (According to the Wikipedia, White killed himself while listening to “The Town I Love So Well” on a loop. He also had other targets who were also obvious symbols of the liberal agenda in the eyes of a right wing nut.)
The movie focuses on the fight against Prop 6, called the Briggs Initiative, a law that would have banned not just gay people, but anyone suspected of “supporting” gay people from working as a teacher in the public school system. The filmmakers certainly couldn’t have anticipated that this movie would come out in a year with a mirror image campaign in Prop 8. In the movie, Prop 6 is polling really well, and the opponents hold a campaign with the full belief that they’ll lose, only to find that their strenuous efforts send Prop 6 down. In this past year, opponents of Prop 8 thought they had it in the bag until the last few weeks, ran a cautious campaign, and saw the ban on gay marriage pass. Watching people onscreen celebrating a victory with such a painful loss in the recent past made me tear up—it’s been exactly 30 years since the Briggs initiative went down in defeat, and you have to wonder how much progress has been made. It was particularly frustrating watching Milk lambast his allies who want to send out materials that don’t mention the word “gay” or “homosexual”, and don’t have a single picture of a person who might be directly affected by the Briggs initiative. Similarly, anti-Prop 8 ads mostly avoided showing actual gay people, instead showing scenes of mostly straight people debating Prop 8 in abstract terms. Maybe Milk was right, and you really do have to put a human face to the problem. His idea was a simple one—if you’re gay, come out to everyone you know, so they can put a face to the issue and know in their heart that a vote for the law is a vote against a friend or a relative. I’d add that if you’re straight, come out as an ally, and in doing so, talk about gay rights in human terms, not in abstract terms.
Dan White only got 5 years in prison for manslaughter for a premeditated murder of two city officials. Few non-wackaloons believe that this wasn’t a travesty of justice that occurred because the jury sympathized with “all-American” Dan White and thought Harvey Milk was a weirdo. The verdict resulted first in a riot by the citizens of San Francisco, and then by a revenge-oriented police riot in the Castro. The Dead Kennedys, who are of course based in San Francisco, wrote a song protesting the verdict.