By Jeff Walsh
"Milk," the new Gus Van Sant movie, tracks the modern gay rights movement from its birth responding to police raids on gay bars in the late 1960s, through the sexual revolution of the 70s, until the assassination of the first openly gay elected official, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, in 1978.
Living in San Francisco, the aura of Harvey Milk hasn't diminished. Looking up on Castro Street, near his camera shop, a fake window is painted with Harvey Milk leaning out and smiling. The portrait reminds us how far we've come, the price people paid for the freedoms we now enjoy and take for granted, and whether we're on the right path for our future. A rainbow flag flies a block away at Harvey Milk Plaza. In our City Hall, a bronze bust of Harvey Milk was added this year, on the 30th anniversary of his death.
So, Harvey Milk is an icon as well as a constant presence. I was 10 years old when he was killed, but over the years, I've developed a mental image of Harvey and I was hesitant to have this long-planned movie possibly ruin it. I needn't have worried.
"Milk" captures so much of what I find iconic about Milk, but also makes him more human and accessible at the same time. Closeted until he was 40, Milk moved to San Francisco, grew out his beard and became part of the counterculture and gay community. He opened a camera shop on Castro Street as the area was shifting from its Irish-Catholic roots to the gayborhood that (largely) still exists today.
Sean Penn does amazing work as Milk, disappearing into the role and bringing the passion and humanity to the surface. But the most important element is the twinkle in Harvey's eye and the joy he infused and that inspired people. Penn does some of the best work in his career here, even looking a lot like Milk.
The movie does suffer from reality, though. Using the recording of an audiotape, with Milk's instructions that it never be played unless he was assassinated, as a framing device, there is a sense that we are on a doomed journey throughout. No matter what happens, we know (and are told outright in the very beginning of the film) that Harvey will be murdered. It does lean more biopic than having some separate, condensed narrative arc to resolve. But the movie does merge the man, the era, and that time in gay history into an extremely worthwhile, important film.
The entire cast is top-notch and features Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Brandon Boyce, and Lucas Grabeel. I'm sure the press will goad someone in the cast (they always do) to mention how icky it was to kiss their male co-stars, but this movie seems to have no shortage of male intimacy, all of which seemed very natural and unrestrained. Everyone brought their A game to tell this sad, inspiring chapter of our history.
One of the distressing parts of the film (aside from not finding myself in the crowd shots from the night I was an extra on Castro Street with Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch leading protest marches) is how some of the things Harvey was fighting for haven't changed in the 30 years since his death. I've written about this elsewhere already, but in the movie, gay leaders show Milk an ad they want to deliver to every home in California to help defeat Proposition 6 in 1978. The proposition would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools.
The ad talked about rights and values, but nowhere did it say the word gay in it. This sets Milk off in the film, that winning battles this way isn't the right thing to do, and he tosses the ad into a fireplace. But, seeing this movie before Election Day 2008, with an anti-gay marriage proposition on the ballot, and the two most-recent ads at the time of this writing both not saying the word gay, was the moment where I was taken out of the movie and questioned our progress both as a society (that we are still spending millions of dollars on both sides for stupid initiatives like this) and as a community (that we're still afraid to mention an anti-gay marriage initiative has something to do with sexuality). It was hard to watch a movie set 30 years in the past, and see how some things haven't changed.
I should point out that this is a Gus Van Sant movie and, as an aficianado, there are decidedly two flavors of Van Sant flicks. He makes more traditional films with trackable narrative arcs and editing (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, and most of My Own Private Idaho), and then the more arty, drifty side with more languid editing choices (Gerry, Last Days, Elephant). Milk is definitely a traditional movie, so anyone concerned about that can put that issue aside this time around. The script by Dustin Lance Black chugs along at a nice pace, and the audio recording faming device ties it all together nicely. I was on the fence about two phone calls that show up in the movie, only because it seemed a bit too perfect and tidy, but I've received such calls at incredibly well-timed moments as well, so go figure.
I think Milk is an important film for everyone to see, because it is a part of our history. The freedoms we enjoy today came at a high price for many before us. That said, I love the amount of humanity that seeped into the movie. Milk is just a man who got a late start in life, had messy imperfect relationships, but really saw an opportunity to make a difference, and did. He was a man who had greatness thrust upon him and rose to the challenge.
On the tape he recorded, he said: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." His vision becomes more of a reality every year, and his legacy lives on.
This movie is a platform release, so it's playing major markets starting today, and will play more cities next week.
Also, and this is important, the CEO of Cinemark theaters (which also runs Century theaters) donated $9999 to "Yes on 8," so if you like somewhere with a choice of seeing the movie at another theater chain, please do. We should avoid paying to see our history at places that impede our future. Boycott Cinemark and Century! That said, if that's your only choice, I think it's better to see it than not.