There are times when a critic finds it hard to review a movie, because of its personal significance to him and implied reproach to his own life. In November 1978, I was a reporter in Akron, Ohio, for the same business newspapers I still work for. I was so deeply closeted that at the time I did not even admit to myself I was gay. The reasons for this were many, complicated, and mostly irrelevant to this column; suffice it to say that a naturally timid nature, a small-town upbringing, and life in a nation in which the debate over homosexuality was still dominated by Anita Bryant were enough in themselves to ensure my silence.
I do not remember any news about Proposition 6—the California ballot measure that would have mandated the dismissal of any gay teacher in the state school system, or any teacher who expressed support for gays—penetrating the Akron Beacon-Journal or the Akron-Cleveland TV news. I do, however, remember the news footage from San Francisco of a stricken Dianne Feinstein announcing, "Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed," with the howls of grief and outrage that ensued. Coming closely on the news of Jonestown and the hundreds of dead there—including Moscone's friend and ally, Rep. Leo Ryan—the Moscone-Milk assassinations coagulated with Jonestown into a monolithic clot of horror.
I do not remember thinking explicitly that the murders—and the subsequent slap on the wrist meted out to the perpetrator, Dan White—were proof that keeping quiet was the best policy. But Anita Bryant remained prominent for years after that, and the emergence of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority—almost simultaneously with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic — kept Bryant's message front-and-center, long after Bryant herself had faded. It was a decade after Harvey Milk's death before I even provisionally began to come out.
All this goes to say that Gus Van Sant's Milk brought home to me vividly a movement and a milieu of which I was only dimly aware at the time it happened. Whether my life would have been different had I known more about Harvey Milk is moot. What I can tell you is that Milk brings the excitement of 1970s gay San Francisco to thrilling life. It is a film both of outstanding quality and extraordinary significance, for my money the best film of the past year.
Those who have seen Robert Epstein's Oscar-winning 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, know that Dustin Lance Black's screenplay for Milk takes some liberties with Milk's actual life. For instance, Milk (played in Van Sant's film by Sean Penn) wasn't still a corporate cog on his 40th birthday—the day on which, according to Black's script, he meets his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) in the New York subway. Milk had already entered his hippie period, morphing from a buttoned-down Wall Street stock analyst to a pony-tailed, scraggly-bearded producer of Off-Broadway plays. No matter: by the time Milk gets Harvey, Scott and us to the Castro and Harvey's camera store, we are in the midst of a truly exciting place and time, in which gay men and women—emboldened by New York's Stonewall riots of the late 1960s—were starting to claim their rights as free citizens of a free society.
Milk has been faulted for hewing too closely to the typical structure of a Hollywood biopic. In its defense, I can only say the structure works, which is why it has become typical.
The "Meet Cute" scene at the beginning between Harvey and Scott, the scenes in the Castro in which Harvey overcomes community opposition and builds political support ("I know I'm not what you expected, but I left my high heels at home," he tells a Teamsters gathering), the scenes where he debates skeptics who soon become converts (most notably a teenage Cleve Jones, played by Emile Hirsch, whom Penn directed in Into the Wild) all fit a well-worn Hollywood pattern. But they do so brilliantly, thanks to Van Sant's propulsive direction, Black's sharp dialogue and the uniformly superb acting. Van Sant—along with cinematographer Harris Savides, editor Elliot Graham, production designer Bill Groom and costume designer Danny Glicker—gives us a convincing and often exciting portrait of the political and cultural upheavals in 1970s San Francisco. Mixing vintage TV and newsreel footage seamlessly into his film, Van Sant makes sure we know precisely what was at stake at that time, and why it mattered so much. (I'm not sure I wanted to be reminded just how smug, how bitter, how toxic Anita Bryant really was. But I needed to be, and so did everyone else.)
More than any other mainstream film I've seen, Milk gives the audience credit for knowing that gay people actually have sex. I remember when the film biography of Oscar Wilde starring Stephen Fry hit theaters a little over a decade ago, and how friends of mine—people I knew to be intelligent and sophisticated—expressed shock and outrage that the film had a very brief scene, filmed from a distance, of Oscar doing it with Bosie. Milk, among other things, has one very brief scene in which Cleve Jones and fellow Milk campaign worker Dick Pabich (Joseph Cross) have a quickie to celebrate an election victory. I haven't heard anyone express shock or dismay over that, and I guess that's progress. We've seen many similar scenes between hetero couples in the movies, but God bless Milk for giving gays their sexual dimension as a natural part of their lives, without prurience. After the cold, bloodless pieties of films such as Philadelphia, Van Sant's film is a tonic.
Of course, any biopic stands or falls by the quality of the acting, and by that measure Milk stands tall. Not many people today have a clear picture of the historical Harvey Milk (which was why it was so important to make this film now), but in any case Sean Penn's performance is one of the most impressive achievements in a distinguished career. While Penn's style, like that of all great actors, is all his own, we can detect some of Brando's electricity along with a transparency and forthrightness reminiscent of Spencer Tracy. What is most impressive about Penn's performance as Harvey Milk is its buoyancy. That is not a quality we associate with Penn's most famous previous performances, such as the Death Row inmate in Dead Man Walking and the South Boston mob boss in Mystic River. But Harvey Milk—however much right-wingers and evangelicals might deny it—was a living embodiment of the American can-do spirit, and Penn pays just tribute to that, as well as to Milk's charisma. (Penn hasn't been this lovable since he played another, very different, all-American misfit in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) When Penn says, "My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you," we understand why so many people—by no means all gay, but cutting across an impressively broad cross-section of San Francisco residents—signed up in Milk's cause. Harvey Milk had such joy and optimism, was so savvy in his political instincts, and was so effective as a public official that it boggles the mind he served less than a year as a San Francisco city supervisor before being cut down. Sean Penn brings home to us both that joy and that tragedy.
Josh Brolin, who gets more impressive with each new movie, is scarcely less fine than Penn as the sad, creepy Dan White.
There still is debate as to whether White's motives went beyond simple revenge; a recent article pointed out that White's campaign manager was gay, which White knew and didn't seem to mind. However, the film's version of White as a deeply closeted, self-hating, gay-bashing gay is persuasive on screen, both as written by Black and played by Brolin. Franco, Hirsch, Cross, Alison Pill as Milk's campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, and Diego Luna as Milk's lover Jack Lira also acquit themselves more than honorably.
In Milk's time, the biggest debate among gays was whether to come out. Milk himself became a staunch advocate of self-outing, and the film is candid about the contradictions this created in Milk's own life. "How often did I have to listen to calls from Mom where you denied my existence?" Scott asks Harvey at one point. Yet Milk's advocacy—continued after his death by Cleve Jones and other protégés—allowed the majority of gay men and women to come out proudly. Milk—which came out on DVD March 10—was enough of a mainstream hit to win two Oscars and to allow Sean Penn to admonish, in his acceptance speech, the supporters of Proposition 8. Even here gays and lesbians have gained ground against their attackers: Proposition 8 denies gays and lesbians the right to marry, whereas Proposition 6 would have denied them, and anyone who showed them any kindness, the right to make a living. But the success of Proposition 8 and similar state measures in the last election demonstrates that homophobia still wields enormous power, and will continue to do so.
My name is Miles Moore. I'm not out to recruit anyone—but I'm out.