Gus Van Sant’s Milk is, thankfully, a political biography above all, consolidating eight years of Harvey Milk’s life not to oversimplify or psychoanalyze, but rather to prove at long last that social change is possible, but only after a great deal of loss. Even then, once change comes – and perceptions about the possible become altered – the best a man like Milk can expect is to die sadly and pointlessly after less than a year in office. But Mr. Milk resonates in full at this most insipid political moment; not solely because California recently confirmed at the ballot box why Americans cannot be trusted to understand “equal protection under the law,” but also because in
Harvey’s slight frame, there stood a man who knew the way politics should be played. He was a man of eventualities, yes, but he never bit off more than a man in his position should chew. One cause at a time, pushing when necessary, while dancing a bit whenever the moment calls. Adept at the very game that ended his life.
Milk was indeed the first openly gay man to be elected to a major political office in American history, but one need not overstate that record to keep the man in our collective memory. His legacy is assured not simply for his sexuality, but also his raw ability. He was pragmatic, idealistic, and full of reckless abandon all at the same time, and not above the expected theatrics. As such, the man need not attain sainthood, even after martyrdom; he was mere flesh, more flawed than most, and his murder was not simply the ascent of bigotry, but yet another in a long line of depressing, too-soon removals from the public eye. By losing Milk, we lost a man who could bring excitement to the process; a child-like joy that still managed to incorporate hard-nosed political reality. One can only imagine what he would have done with the AIDS epidemic. At the very least, we would have been paying attention. Maybe even caring before Rock Hudson.
Because the film considers the Milk of public record (his move to San Francisco, his awakening, and eventual run for power), we are spared the obligatory family scenes where we are fed half-baked nuggets of faux wisdom about the man within. The screenplay is a glorious repudiation of these tired, conventional methods, and Milk becomes, at least for us, a man of intensity, sexuality, and indignation alone. Why, we can never fully know, and for once, it may be as simple as Milk wanting to do something meaningful before fading away into middle age. As portrayed by Sean Penn (with the usual perfection, even if he seems to channel I Am Sam here and there) he appears to lack any real ego, but the self-regard is there, even if you have to look for it. For here is a man of no particular distinction who feels compelled to act on behalf of (and speak for) others. It’s not exactly narcissism, but chutzpah nonetheless. Not unexpectedly, he appears to be in the right place at the right time.
As likeable as he is (and Penn gives him a sweet-seductive quality to be sure), he’s still a silly man in many ways, which bolsters the film with much-needed balance. Though no attempt is made to judge the man as a homosexual, it bears repeating that in terms of his personal life, Milk was, quite frankly, emotionally retarded at best. He falls in love within minutes of meeting Scott (James Franco), and though he becomes “the one that got away,” there’s no attempt to instill the relationship with any real tragic dimensions. It simply ended. In a nutshell, Milk likes young, attractive men, and he wants to be near them as much as possible. It’s no deeper than that. His final boyfriend, Jack (Diego Luna), is a certifiable idiot, but
Harvey loves him just the same. He even admits that as an aging, less-than-adorable man, he’s lucky to find someone so mindlessly delightful. Jack eventually commits suicide because, well, he’s utterly insane and obsessively melodramatic, but that’s what
Harvey needs. What politician has ever had an admirable love life? Why believe a gay man should be any different? Against all logic, smart men often crave their intellectual inferiors in the sack. I know I do.
Again, the film shines because it is a disciplined, backdoor look at the grime and sweat of running for office, and for once the world entire isn’t at stake. Rather than the presidency, this is simply a position on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors (the equivalent of a city council), and the earth won’t move one way or the other. But it is a turbulent time, and we are not spared the city’s official bigotry, either by business owners or the homophobic police department. Milk’s call to arms was a disgust with intolerance, and like so many in the field of identity politics, he felt that it took “one of his own” to get things done right. Perhaps, but not necessarily. Still, he took great risks, even at that low level of power, and in the end, he made it about more than his bedroom antics. Because he operated a camera shop in the city, he came to know the rules of courtship between state and commerce, and he benefitted greatly from those hard-won lessons. In the end, it’s best to stick it to a man’s wallet.
Milk’s finest hour was in helping defeat the odorous Proposition 6 (the Briggs Initiative) a statewide referendum that would have banned all homosexuals – and those who support them – from teaching in the public schools. The fight allows the film to get in a few glorious jabs at the bloated warhorse Anita Bryant, but more than that, it shows Milk’s untiring dedication to the Constitution. Even here, though, the victory is tempered by the reality that Milk would be dead only a few weeks after the initiative’s defeat. Still, it was a high that could have carried him beyond city government to more national prominence. As always, the film celebrates the tangible; the measurable dents in complacency’s armor that foretold a more open time for the persecuted. Being a symbol is not enough; you have to get your hands dirty and actually accomplish something.
The film also handles the manner of his death with restraint, making his killer Dan White (Josh Brolin) not a fixture of evil, but rather a confused, inept buffoon who likely committed the crime as an afterthought. Yes, White and Milk had their battles, but White’s beef was with Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), who refused to rescind White’s resignation from the board. The mayor’s murder was premeditated to be sure (White sneaks through a basement window to avoid the metal detector), but as presented, I had to think that White left Moscone’s office and only by perverse happenstance decided to add Milk to his hit list. The record may prove otherwise, but the lack of forethought adds shading to White’s character, rather than sticking him with the usual closeted rage or self-loathing. As it stands, we can believe that White was a little nutty, but not the wide-eyed engine of hatred some might believe him to be. The film hints (barely) at White’s possible sexual difficulties, but the film wisely avoids a direct link and instead presents him as yet another American male who believed in a “they” that was out to get him. When such a “they” exists, it is usually dispatched with violence.
Lacking the obvious axe-grinding or moral sanctimony, Milk becomes a solid entry in a very distinct canon of character: the American man who tried to change the culture, only to die before reaching the mountain top. Such men grow in stature upon reflection, but Milk can stay comfortably grounded. He’s worth remembering, but let’s not get carried away, after all. He would agree. And in death, while the candlelight procession staggers the imagination (it seems never to end), it’s a gesture out of step with the man Milk was. In the end, he didn’t even die because he was gay, which, for many, would have been the only appropriate final act. The true sacrifice. He broke ground, yes, and challenged the old order, but he was a politician first. A damn good one, but no more, no less. He died serving the city he loved, but the bullets that ended his life came from the hand of a distraught, confused ex-cop who couldn’t conceive of life without a steady paycheck. He was desperate, alone, and as expected, lashed out at his self-styled enemies. But Milk can (and should) mean more to us than simply a homosexual who was killed by hate. It stands to reason that his murder was a hateful act; but stripping it of politics and sexuality need not make his death less tragic. Milk surely had more depth than that.