Whatever else it may be about (for this is a film that exists on many levels), Milk, about Harvey Milk, is about the capacity in America for someone to set the course of one’s own myth. Milk, a gay Jewish New York businessman, was not young but he took Horace Greeley’s advice about going west, not to make a fortune in his case, but to embrace his identity. For him, going west, in his case to San Francisco’s Castro district, meant uncloseting himself; in that odd way that life has of accommodating the most outrageously bald fiction, he did so by opening (with his lover from New York) a camera shop. It thrived in part, the film stresses, because of the area’s gay community, which patronized it. But even in so relatively insular an environment, gays were targets of anti-gay hatred; and a passage in which some blurry figure at night may be pursuing Milk down his own street to beat him or kill him, as much as an elaborately shot confrontation between Milk and a police officer over the body of a murdered gay man, encapsulates the vulnerability of the group to which Milk belongs now that he has located his identity inside it.
Coming out, then, means coming out to incredible danger, but being bolstered by a whole community of vulnerable ones. Milk’s pursuit of elective municipal office totes and enlarges the springboarding paradox. After unsuccessful campaigns, Milk wins his 1977 election to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, providing him with a platform from which he can pursue the cause of gay civil rights, but also giving anti-gay hatred an especially consolidated target. From the start, Milk receives anonymous death threats.
At least two ironies—this is a film of exquisite ironies—attach themselves to Milk’s election in his pursuit of the myth he chooses to make of his life in order to benefit others as much as himself. One is that local politics seems to be directing the hand of fate regarding him; no longer do candidates for supervisor need to court votes city-wide but can concentrate on their own district, and redistricting has further enhanced the likelihood of Milk’s victory. The ultimate irony is this: Milk’s assassination (by former supervisor Dan White) derives from an ambiguous complex of motives to which anti-gay hatred contributes little or possibly nothing at all.
In the brilliant film that Gus Van Sant has wrought from Dustin Lance Black’s interesting script (Black throughout relates American anti-gay hatred to Hitler’s campaign against Jews and gays), a horrible cloud of death follows Milk, seems somehow invested in him. There is the threat of injury and even murder to which all gays are vulnerable; this danger comes even from the police, whose job it should be to protect gays. But Milk’s individual case strikingly includes the instability of his sex life; his lovers include, we learn, three suicides, and a fourth one commits suicide in the course of the film’s action. When Milk breaks down on this last occasion, we understand that he does so under the burden of the four losses and what they may suggest about the bad fortune he inflicts on some of those closest to him. In part, the last suicide reflects Milk’s poor skills at juggling his personal life and political aims and responsibilities. But Van Sant’s poetic sensibility cannot expunge the sense that doom is part of Milk’s DNA. It is an irresolvable task to impute to Milk’s tragic sexual history the exact role played by the general plight of gays in America.
Milk, a long-nurtured dream project for Van Sant, who himself is openly gay, is among his most poetic achievements. He wrings poetry from unlikely quarters, including glimpses of group activism and political strategy sessions, and likelier quarters, including mass demonstrations. By contrast, his deliberate intrusions of the prosaic along two specific lines are telling and intriguing. One of these involves the film’s structuring device: Milk’s talking about himself into a tape recorder. This is framed as a legacy for the gay rights movement in the case of Milk’s own assassination. This much may derive from Black’s script; but here is the eerie part that shows how decisive direction is over script: but for their different “issues,” Milk’s recitation for posterity—to which the film returns again and again—might have been made just as easily by Dan White. Milk, with others, is “switched on” as a personality; he is warm, funny, gregarious. Sitting alone at table and recording this mythmaking history of himself, however, finds him speaking in the repressed mode that elsewhere characterizes White, not him. Throughout, White is characterized and shot in a prosaic manner that likewise (expressively) differs from the poetic style of the rest of the film. Perhaps the springboard for this surreptitious identification of political adversaries White and Milk—White, a former police officer and firefighter represents the “old” Roman Catholic San Francisco—is Milk’s belief that White himself is a repressed homosexual. Unlike his advisors, Milk detects the desperation in White’s eyes that, ironically, will erupt in his—Milk’s—assassination. (White served five years of a seven-year sentence for “manslaughter” for murdering Milk and Mayor George Moscone; eighteen months after his release, White committed suicide.)
One of Van Sant’s inspirations for this achingly moving film is Rob Epstein’s documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984); Milk even quotes the earlier film. Indeed, one of Van Sant’s most extraordinary accomplishments with Milk is his employment and blending of fictional, quasi-documentary and documentary materials. Van Sant creates from these a fluent river of visual expression.
Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk. This film is his redemption. Penn is utterly convincing with every aspect of Milk’s complex personality—and bracingly so with Milk’s political ruthlessness. James Franco is excellent as Scott Smith, a lover of Milk’s who leaves Milk. A haunting postscript reveals that Smith died of AIDS-related illness in the 1980s.
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