It opens with archival footage of police raids on gay bars, grainy black-and-white stuff that’s like a grim glimpse into a distant dreadful past, like the 1950s and 60s were another planet, and you think, Geez, people really worried that much about who was sleeping with whom? Or, no: People worried that much about people just thinking about sex, people lonely enough to sneak into a secret bar in search of some company? People worried that much that they needed to bring the police into it?
And then you remember that some people still, today, worry about such nonsense as whose naughty bits are doing what with whose, or that God forbid two men might hold hands on the street where the children could see it. How do we explain this thing called love to the children? Horrors!
And so it’s clear that a movie like Milk is very very essential, even when it’s as conventional as it is. Perhaps even because it’s as conventional as it is. Oh dear, really? Harvey Milk’s relationships suffered because of his ambition… the ambition that ironically we remember him for today? You mean, just like straight people’s relationships suffer in Hollywood biopics, and lovers are left alone and the ties that bind don’t tie so well? Shocking!
I’m being glib, sort of, but I’m being sincere, too. There’s a lovely ordinariness to Milk that makes it special: “Look,” the film seems to say, “gays are people too, just as fucked up and wonderful and regular as the rest of us.” And there’s a luminous vivacity to Sean Penn’s (The Interpreter, The Assassination of Richard Nixon) Harvey, a kind of glow that I’ve never seen in the actor before and never would have imagined he could bring to the screen, a quality that elevates the cinematic orthodoxy of the flick to a new place.
“My fellow degenerates,” Penn’s Milk says with a grin to crowds of San Francisco supporters in the late 1970s, as he’s making history by running for local office as an openly gay man, and he’s funny and sweet and charming and you just want to hug him. And maybe it’s just me and my own evil degenerate ways, but who could hate this man? How could such a cuddly yet sad yet optimistic man be dangerous? Such a concept is ridiculous, and the matter-of-fact, no-bullshit approach of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (of HBO’s Big Love) and director Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park, Finding Forrester), avoiding his usual dreaminess, makes it seem as if, paradoxically, we’re already living in a world where such bigotry is a relict of the past. Which is precisely the right way to play it, if actually relegating such bigotry to the past is the purpose of a film like this. It pats bigots on the head and dismisses their delusions as just so much quaint unpleasantness that the rest of the world has moved in from, and if they want to cling to their old-fashioned narrow-mindedness… well, isn’t that adorable, in a disgusting way?
Look, there isn’t even much credence given to the notion that Milk was eventually shot to death because he was gay or a radical or was trying to bring down America with his calls for tolerance and nonhating. Black and Van Sant play the shooting of Milk by his fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin, topping an extraordinary year with this subdued performance) more as a personal thing, a workplace flareup by a coworker gone postal — White, the film seems to suggest, was so irked by Milk’s snubs that that was all the motive he needed, in his disturbed head. Who cares if he was gay?
Which isn’t meant to minimize the impact Milk had, or denigrate his memory, or lessen his importance to the gay-rights movement — isn’t meant to, and doesn’t. Milk worried about assassination and was threatened with it, and the film makes no bones about that. But in the end, Milk was a man, a person, not a label or banner or a symbol, and it may be the greatest tribute to him that his insistence on acceptance comes in a package that insists that he was, first and foremost, simply human, and subject to the same random terrible tragic crap as everyone else.