Movie Review: “Milk”

To preface my review, I’d like to note that Shawn, Anne, Steph, and I had the most approproate sighting ever at the theater. Simon Doonan (in a black [possibly faux] fur coat, obviously) and Jonathan Adler arrived fashionably on time (unlike Anne and I, who arrived 50 minutes early) and were forced to sit in the front row, as the show was sold out last Saturday evening. [There seems to be some debate about whether Simon was in a fur coat, because Shawn likes to argue. I stand by my story and I request that Simon contact me with the nature of his coat immediately.]

Gus Van Sant’s biopic Milk spans the later life of Harvey Milk, a political activist in San Francisco who becomes the first openly gay man to serve in public office. The movie starts on Milk’s 40th birthday, around the time that he met Scott Smith (played by James Franco), a lover 20 years his junior, and moved to San Francisco to live an open life after spending most of his adult life in the closet. Born out of necessity more than anything, Milk joins forces with some members of his local gay community and runs for a Supervisor position while managing a camera shop in the Castro District, a neighborhood with a largely gay population. Scott stays in the shadows while Harvey loses his first few runs for office (largely due to a lack of initial motivation in the community due to hopelessness), gaining more popularity with each but lacking the much-needed support of prominent gay figures in the community.

The movie integrated haunting news footage, which managed to show how long ago 30 years seems, yet how little things have changed. The first few minutes showed arrests made after the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, and it was shocking to watch. (You’re going to make me cry in the first two minutes, Gus? Really?) People don’t know the history behind the gay rights movement in the same way we understand the injustices of the civil rights movement, especially because we are still inside of this movement. With Prop. 8 and recent (publicized) murders of transgendered people, I feel like we’re in the thick of it and we have a long way to go. After all, the featured clips of Anita Bryant talking about God’s law sound identical to most current anti-gay rhetoric. The footage of Bryant, accompanied with a tinkling soundtrack that brought the ’50s housewife to mind, seemed outdated yet frightening because her words and sentiments are still threats.

Milk often spoke in platitudes in the film, but Sean Penn managed to offer mannerisms and affectations that fleshed out the character brilliantly. As the movie covered only his political career, he did seem a little too good to be true, with speeches about hope, standing up in the face of martyrdom, and acting as a mentor to younger gay men. Of course, you always wish a biographical film will feel real, but Milk was representing an entire movement, a period of time, as well as a man’s life. But, as Crash was cliche because it took on too much, and Brokeback Mountain was touching (and more esoteric than progressive) because it was so specific, Milk was right in the middle, maintaining truth for the characters yet still sympathetically addressing an important issue that needs immediate attention. (And, I hope that, like me, everyone wonders why this movie couldn’t have come out just six weeks ago, with Prop. 8 looming over our heads.)

Despite the occasional awkward introduction of characters (scratch that: every introduction was completely random and awkward), each actor that made up Milk’s gay entourage gave life to the real people they were playing. Juxtaposed with the preachy dialogue of Milk, the regular conversations felt authentic. Though Penn and Franco’s parts were played expertly, the ensemble (similar to a Greek chorus of gays) accurately depicted the gay community unlike anything I’ve seen in a film. Josh Brolin, playing Milk’s fellow supervisor and eventual murderer, an Irish-Catholic former police officer, did his best to look brooding and complicated but it seems that it would’ve been impossible for the movie to truly explore his motives in a real way while addressing all of the other issues it took on. So, despite Brolin’s obvious efforts, the character remained a little flat, which may have been a good thing because a lack of understanding made the crime even more unbelievable for me (and, therefore, even more outrageous in a way that one only feels when watching things that seem more likely to be fiction).

The most touching of any of the performances was Franco’s. He played a role usually reserved for a female, and this gender reversal made the angst more obvious, forced the audience (hopefully) to think about the supporting female role, in life and in movies. In a cast full of men (I’ll get to that in a second), Franco was the character I identified with most, not because he was in the shadows watching his lover’s success or because his emotions could be felt most during the quiet moments, but because you could sense that this position was stifling to Scott and, therefore, Franco. (By the way, Franco, could you work on being a little less attractive? I’m trying to take you seriously over here.)

During the movie, my mind wandered a bit, wondering, “Where are the women? The lesbians?” With every rally, I searched for female faces, and I’d see gay men and a token drag queen; the women were few and far between. And the movie responded as if it was aware of its own failure, addressing the flaw with dialogue as if pointing to it first would prevent outside criticism. Milk hires a young, talented lesbian named Anne Kronenburg to take Scott’s campaign manager position after Scott leaves, and the gay chorus feels threatened by this invasion—they have to be convinced she hasn’t come in to castrate them. Their jokes are funny because their fear of a female presence (especially a lesbian) is very real.

Despite what I still believe was a flaw in representation, the movie inadvertently and (occasionally) intentionally addressed the fact that gay communities can exist with men alone and often do. While this offered the marginalized Castro community comfort, it also led to isolationism, which Milk seems to support in some ways and rail against in others. At one point, he says that he needs to win because the gay men of the Castro need representation in politics, just like the black communities elect black leaders so that they can “look out for their own.” This draws a clear line: us and them. (This sentiment was especially interesting after the Obama-related paranoia from racist whites, that he would get into office with the sole purpose of advancing blacks over whites.) But at another point, Milk makes it clear that any of his supporters who haven’t come out need to immediately (or they will be hoisted out), because if everyone came out, then the other 90% would have to accept them. Despite his seeming distrust of a discriminating straight community, Milk (later in his life) stood against hiding queerness to prevent others’ discomfort and wanted to, instead, use honesty to force acceptance (and this is something with which I wholeheartedly agree so I was happy to watch these scenes).

When the threat of Prop. 6 is introduced (a proposition to allow the firing of teachers who may be gay or support gays), Milk disccuses his opposal to segregating the gay community (despite an earlier self-segregation), which I found interesting given the recent discussion of his high school namesake. I think the contradictory stances in the movie represented the difficulties in wanting to assimilate into the larger community yet wanting to own one’s difference (and, as a result, being accepted because and not despite that difference). Milk and the growing Castro district raised a lot of questions: Do you really want to be part of a community that doesn’t accept you? How do you protect yourself if you are not part of it? Can you be normal by being different—can a movement make “different” normal? Milk addresses these questions and pretty much answers, “I don’t know. But I know that I don’t know.” And that’s OK; we’re all still figuring it out.

Bring tissues. Unless you think you won’t cry (in which case, just bring your charred, black soul).