THE PLANK NOVEMBER 25, 2008
Gus Van Sant's Milk is not a bad movie. Star Sean Penn eschews his characteristic bluster, offering a powerful yet modest performance as Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated in 1978. The supporting roles are also sharp, in particular Josh Brolin as Dan White, the disturbed former supervisor who killed Milk and Mayor George Moscone. And Van Sant's direction is generally smooth, if extremely conventional. (Apart from the men kissing, there's not much here likely to scandalize.)
Moreover, Milk is, at least to those like myself who share its political goals, a worthwhile movie: an introduction to a crucial figure in the gay rights movement for millions of Americans who've never heard of him; a testament to how far gay rights have come in just 30 years; and a reminder of the focus and fortitude that further progress will require. The fact that one of its central events, the push to enact controversial Prop 6--which would have banned openly gay men and lesbians from teaching jobs in California--was echoed so closely by the recent Prop 8 vote (though with a happier outcome the first time around) only serves to underscore its ongoing relevance.
So why did the movie leave me so cold? Largely, I suppose, it is a question of belatedness. Milk was murdered 30 years ago. The exceptional The Times of Harvey Milk won the Oscar for Best Documentary 24 years ago. The Dead Kennedys recorded their Dan White-themed "I Fought the Law (and I Won)" 21 years ago. Yet, all this time later, after the world has shifted under our feet, Hollywood wants us to applaud its courage for finally--finally--telling this story? Really? I can't help but think there will be something cheap about the inevitable Oscar nominations (and probable victories) with which the movie industry will advertise its moral elevation come February.
There are other quibbles: Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black shamelessly rip off the earlier documentary, framing the film early with footage of then-supervisor Dianne Feinstein announcing the murders and audio of the tape-recorded "will" that Milk wanted played in the event of his "death by assassination." And what I would give to see a movie in which the death of a martyr is not filmed in excruciating, can-you-believe-how-tragic-this-is slow motion. But these are idiosyncratic complaints.
If you are of a mind to see Milk, then by all means do so. It is a well-made film and, in its way, perhaps even an important one. But if you can find a copy, take a look at The Times of Harvey Milk, too. I first saw the film more than twenty years ago, and it frankly overwhelmed me. As its title advertises, it is less the story of a man, and more the story of a movement and a moment, told not by Milk himself but by a few of those who were close to him. One in particular, an auto machinist named Jim Elliot who began as a skeptic and homophobe but became one of Milk's resolute supporters, has stuck with me ever since. (If you've seen the film, you'll know who I mean.) In his voice, perhaps as much as in Milk's own, you hear the march of progress.
Update: I'm semi-out-of-pocket for the holiday, and the version initially posted was missing a few copy edits, since corrected.