I must confess that I initially saw Milk to watch dudes making out with other dudes. And boy howdy, did I get my wish. From James Franco and Sean Penn making goo-goo eyes at each other across the dinner table to Emile Hirsch giving some dude a blow-jay in a darkroom, Milk has gay sex in spades. As a connoisseur of hot man-on-man action (or perhaps just a drooling objectifier of gay men), I was in heaven.
But Milk is obviously about more than sex. Milk is a biopic about the life and death of Harvey Milk—the first openly gay man elected to major public office in the United States. The film begins with Harvey (played by a perhaps bit too fey Sean Penn) on his 40th birthday. He’s a closeted chump in a three-piece suit working for an insurance company. He meets Scott Smith (James Franco), who becomes his longtime lover and encourages him to “run away” to San Francisco; specifically to the Castro—a tiny corner in America where gay people can be themselves in public without (much) fear of persecution.
The two lovebirds do run away to the magical land of gay Oz, open a camera shop, and meet a bunch of other educated, activist queers. Before long, Harvey realizes that the gay rights movement needs one of their own in politics and decides to run for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. His platform is one of human rights—specifically for senior citizens, union members, the disabled, and, of course, the homos. To make a long story short, he fails. Not once, not twice, but three years in a row. It’s not until 1977, in the midst of a culture war waged against homosexuality and led by singer turned right-wing Christian psycho Anita Bryant, that Harvey (once again sporting a three-piece suit and a professional haircut—still a hippie fag, but no longer looking like one) is finally elected.
Through his kindness and charisma (not to mention his political savvy), Harvey brings the most unlikely people together. But anyone who knows about Harvey Milk also knows that his time is limited. It’s hard not to cringe when Harvey’s now ex-boyfriend, Scott, tells him on his 48th birthday “I guess you’ll make it to 50 after all”. But in his short time on the Board, Harvey manages to help defeat Prop 6—which would have called for the immediate firing of any openly gay teacher—and anyone supporting gay teachers—in California. If this proposition sounds medieval and un-American, just think about which proposition recently passed in California. Milk is a frustrating reminder that, 30 years later, we’re fighting the same battles all over again.
But Milk’s days are numbered. It’s not long before Harvey’s fellow Supervisor Dan White walks into City Hall, and shoots both Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk point blank. But as horrific as the assassination is, Milk ends on a positive note, with Penn reciting Harvey’s own words, which he recorded on a tape to be played in the event of his murder. He says “I know that you cannot live on hope alone. But without hope, life is not worth living. And you…and you…and you…you gotta give ‘em hope.” Moving words back then and still today.
Milk’s greatest strength is by far the acting. Everyone in the film pulls his or her weight—even the minor characters. Penn, as I mentioned before, plays Milk a little more effeminately than Milk actually was. But it somehow works—showing that even a “stereotypically” gay man could get the vote of macho union men. James Franco provides a quiet, reserved performance as Milk’s long-suffering lover who leaves when it becomes clear that Harvey’s first love will always be politics and activism. Emile Hirsch is unrecognizable as Cleve Jones, an adorable smartass street hustler whom Harvey recruits to help run his campaign.
Josh Brolin is a chameleon of an actor. Last year he played the stoic, hunted Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men; this year he played the most recognizable face in government today—W himself; and in Milk he plays all-American Dan White. His portrayal of White suggests that the man was not malicious, nor particularly hateful towards gays, but merely insecure—a man simply trying to do what he thinks is right and provide for his family, who finds himself unpopular and cornered by the Board of Supervisors in general and by Milk in particular. And in a moment of disgruntled helplessness, White takes his anger out on Moscone and Milk. I’m not trying to excuse White’s heinous crimes, but you realize that he’s not a monster, just a confused, frustrated individual who seriously fucks up. The closing footage reveals that White, perhaps unsurprisingly, killed himself two years after being released from a mild prison sentence.
The only major beef I had with Milk (har har!) is that it sometimes becomes heavy-handed and preachy. Sean Penn is well known as a liberal activist in Hollywood and I feel like a little bit of that “stickin’ it to the man” attitude slips into his performance. Rather than making a pure tribute to Milk’s life, Van Sant and Penn seem to use the film as their own personal soapbox and turn it into a “message movie”. Granted, a film about Milk’s life can’t not be in some way political, but I felt that Milk, mainly due to its melodrama and didacticism, failed to touch me in the same way that the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk did. In any case, Milk is strong, solid film with excellent performances and, or course, plentiful guy-on-guy. You know, if that’s what you’re into.