Movie Review: Milk
The Charlotte Observer
This is a big anniversary year for political assassinations: John Kennedy died 45 years ago, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were slain 40 years ago, and only the slip of a gunman’s foot prevented Franklin Roosevelt from being murdered 75 years ago. (Chicago mayor Al Cermak took the fatal bullet.)
Harvey Milk could easily be lost in this parade of dead leaders. But the San Francisco supervisor – who was gunned down along with Mayor George Moscone on Nov. 28, 1978 – was the first openly gay man elected to a major political office, and director Gus Van Sant has memorialized him in “Milk.”
Whatever you think of gay people (or politicians), you may find the movie compelling viewing. It’s about how he redefined San Franciscans’ attitudes toward sexuality, of course. But Milk, embodied by Sean Penn in an extraordinary and self-effacing performance, takes the same journey of self-discovery that so many ordinary people must.
If you’re over 40, you may remember the headlines. Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) quit his job and wanted it back. Moscone (Victor Garber) refused to re-appoint him; White shot him and then Milk, whom he saw as a political nemesis leading an offensive lifestyle. He served five years in prison – his lawyers said his brain was unbalanced by junk food, an argument called “the Twinkie defense” – and committed suicide two years after his release.
“The Times of Harvey Milk” covered this ground, but few of us have seen that Oscar-winning documentary from 1984. So Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black re-tell the story, focusing on Milk’s evolution from a closeted gay Republican in New York to an openly gay camera shop owner in San Francisco. He ran for city government because he felt officials were doing too little to stop gay-bashing and was finally elected after three tries. (San Francisco was not so hospitable to homosexuals in the ’70s.)
The film makes no effort to sanctify Milk. His messy personal relationships, including an inexplicable liaison with an unstable young Latino (Diego Luna), hold him back. He occasionally abuses power, and he’s not above proposing a political trade to White and then backing out of his end. (He tells aides he thinks the married White is “one of us” and needs time to come out; the filmmakers flirt with this notion but don’t settle it.)
Casting the famously macho, tight-lipped Penn as the brash, chatty, self-promoting Milk has liberated the actor: His Milk is light on his feet, quick to move and think, full of joy at casting off the burden of public deception. Penn seems to take the same joy in exploring this unfamiliar character that Milk took in discovering his true personality.
The whole cast shines, from James Franco as the loving partner who tires of Milk’s political ambitions to Alison Pill as the lesbian who runs the winning campaign (and faces bigotry in her own community from gay men who consider her an intruder).
The story ends with a triumph as well as a tragedy: Californians vote against a public proposition to remove gay teachers from schools. The film began production before that state’s recent vote to ban gay marriages, but the election scenes resonate because of current events.
Milk’s killing makes us realize the significant political slayings of the last half-century have all silenced left-leaning social reformers. (The nut who shot Ronald Reagan just wanted to impress a girl.)
In the movie, Milk’s murder galvanizes the gay community and its straight allies into more political action. Van Sant and Clark remind us that you can mow down people advocating new ideas but never the ideas themselves.