Sean Penn shines in Harvey Milk biopic

I can’t give a fair appraisal of Milk, especially its cinematography, because I watched the whole movie through teary eyes. I moved to San Francisco two months after Harvey Milk’s murder, and if I didn’t live through the events shown in the film, I felt like I had. If I didn’t know all the people involved, I felt like I did because I’d see them on the street and read about them in the papers.

Gus Van Sant has taken a cue from his subject, the first openly gay man elected to major public office in the U.S., by appealing to various constituencies without compromising his principles. Milk is the out-est, gayest, proudest movie ever made in the mainstream; yet it can be seen and appreciated by anyone, even if they don’t agree with it.

Milk is long but well paced, having scads of information to impart to those who have forgotten it or never knew it. It has to introduce a lot of people, issues, the craziness of California politics and even the origins of the gay movement. The credit sequence is a montage of clips of the police raiding gay bars in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The framework for the film proper is a tape recording Harvey Milk made days before he was assassinated, to be played “in the event of my death.” It includes the line, “If a bullet should smash through my brain, let that bullet smash every closet door.” Here the tape becomes a full-fledged memoir, at least of Milk’s last eight years.

In 1970 Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) is a New York Jewish insurance man catching a late subway on the eve of his 40th birthday. He gets an unexpected present when he meets Scott Smith (James Franco), a hot young hippie type from Jackson, Mississippi.

Needing a change of scene to fully leave the closet, Milk suggests they “run away together.” In 1972 they’re living in San Francisco, where Castro Street is beginning to become a gay haven. Harvey opens a store, Castro Camera. Pointedly unwelcomed by the local merchants association, he talks of starting a separate group for gay businesses. He forms an alliance with the Teamsters Union, getting the gay community to support their boycott of Coors beer, in exchange for which they start hiring openly gay drivers.

Dubbed “The Mayor of Castro Street” (“Or I may have invented it myself,” he admits.), Harvey makes his first run for the Board of Supervisors in 1973, coming in tenth in a field of 32 competing for six seats. He loses again in 1975 and in a bid for the state assembly in ’76, when his opponent, Art Agnos (Jeff Koons), gives him a good piece of advice—which sounds oddly contemporary—about offering hope in his speeches.

In 1977 the rules change so San Franciscans elect supervisors by district, rather than citywide. Milk is a perfect fit for District Five, consisting largely of hippies (the Haight) and gays (the Castro), but when he decides to run Scott leaves him: “I can’t do another one.” They remain friends to the end, always hinting at a possible reunion.

Meanwhile Harvey finds a new boyfriend, or rather, Jack Lira (Diego Luna) finds him. Immature, clingy and needy, he’s a bad fit for a man with an all-consuming job and never bonds with Milk’s associates. The latter group expands to include a new campaign manager, lesbian Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), who helps Milk get an endorsement from the San Francisco Chronicle, even though the Advocate endorses his (also gay) opponent, the more conservative Rick Stokes.

It’s also the year Anita Bryant galvanizes the gay community nationwide with her successful campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida.

Harvey is elected to the Board of Supervisors but so is Dan White (Josh Brolin), a former policeman and firefighter who represents the city’s Irish Catholic old guard. The two men get along on some level but White lacks Milk’s political savvy and begins to resent him.

The last big fight is against the 1978 “Briggs Initiative,” which would bar homosexuals and their allies from teaching in public schools. With that battle won by the gays, Dan White resigns from the Board but tries to un-resign days later. When Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) refuses to reinstate him, the stage is set for tragedy .

It’s a lot of history to cram into two hours without sacrificing entertainment value, but Van Sant does it, with the help of a well informed, commercially savvy screenplay by Dustin Lance Black.

With the exception of Dan White—and Brolin’s stepmother must be so proud of his portrayals of two conservative politicians in one season—the other characters exist only in relation to Milk; so there’s only one performance that matters.

If Harvey Milk were alive today he’d come in second to Sean Penn in a Harvey Milk Lookalike contest. Penn’s performance encompasses a broad range of moods and emotions, never not gay but always just gay enough, from “40 years old and I haven’t done a single thing I’m proud of” to the proudest gay man in America. If I got to do all those love scenes with Franco and Luna I’d be inspired to greatness too, but somehow I don’t think Penn had the same motivation. With a few contenders left to see, so far he’s the man to beat for Best Actor.

Van Sant’s new footage blends seamlessly with a lot of original films of the period, some of which were probably processed through Castro Camera. It must have been difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out, but I was glad to see Sylvester, San Francisco’s reigning disco diva of the era, represented. There’s relatively little disco on the soundtrack, considering how inescapable it was at the time, but a lot of Tosca.

Milk is comparable to Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia, both in terms of award potential and knowing what the American public is ready to accept. I can’t imagine a better film being made on the subject.

The Q Archives and articles like this are republished here by the kind contribution of Tony Molnar-Strejcek, the publisher of Pittsburgh’s Out. Maintaining the cultural history of Pittsburgh's LGBTQ Community is made possible by contributions by readers like you.