Milk is the movie Gus Van Sant was born to make. And he has been anxiously trying to get it made for much of his career. He once came close with a production starring Robin Williams. That might have been great; we’ll never know. But I’m glad it fell apart. The time is now perfect for Van Sant to tackle this material.
After a decade of experimentation with “art” films like Elephant (loosely about Columbine), Last Days (loosely about Kurt Cobain), and the brilliant Paranoid Park, Van Sant has returned to the mainstream. But every subtly artful trick he’s picked up along the way has found a place in the fabric of this story. It is exhilarating cinema.
The movie tells the true story of Harvey Milk (a marvelous Sean Penn), an activist and politician with the distinction of being the first openly gay man elected to office. After several failed campaigns for city and state assembly seats – and after much political gamesmanship that included building alliances by demonstrating the enormous purchasing power of the gay community – he was elected to a San Francisco supervisor seat in 1977.
From there, the movie chronicles Milk’s entanglements with fellow supervisor Dan White, a staunch conservative, and Anita Bryant with her national anti-gay “Save the Children” crusade. This all leads to his assassination.
I’m not spoiling anything. The movie makes clear from the beginning that Milk will be dead from an assassin’s bullet before reaching the age of 50 and is narrated using flashbacks as Milk records a tape – only to be played in the event of his assassination. There is an air of sadness wafting through the entire movie.
It is sadness that motivates Milk’s political aspirations. He says, “I’ve had four lovers and three have killed themselves.” They were unable to deal with the shame of having to live in the “closet.” He wants to create a world where hiding is no longer necessary. His relationship with Cleve Jones (an amazing Emile Hirsch) is crushed by sadness with Jones even hiding at one point in an actual closet.
Milk’s sadness builds as he realizes, stretching his head and looking about, that he has become a part of the very “machine” he so despises. And his relationships have suffered, none more so than with Scott Smith (James Franco). The movie opens with a pick-up scene between Milk and Smith that leads to the most touching moments in the movie, captured in close-ups that caress the actors as lovingly as they caress each other. It’s unbearably sad later as we watch Smith pushed more and more into the margins of Milk’s life.
There is growing sadness in Dan White (Josh Brolin in his second great turn of the year as a politician after George W. Bush) as well, his political career sagging as Milk’s surges. And he blames it all on Milk. White is a tragic figure and, in the end, pathetically sad, “Twinkie Defense” sad. But he isn’t the villain.
Milk evokes a time and place with its skillful mix of archival footage and period detail as well as any movie I’ve seen. It ranks right up with Zodiac in its evocation of 1970s San Francisco. And at the center of it all is the movie’s beast — Anita Bryant. She appears entirely via stock film clips and the temptation to cast her with a contemporary actress was wisely resisted. Her actual words and appearance is more frightening than anything Van Sant could have possibly re-created.