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Milk Explores the Importance and Occupational Hazards of Change

Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Focus, 2008

Milk is probably one of the most appropriately timed political movies made, considering the controversy over Proposition 8 in California and our recent Presidential election.  It shares much of its themes with 1996’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt, the main one being that if we protect the civil rights of even those we find reprehensible, we who consider ourselves “pure” can take heart that no one can take them away from us for any reason.

The argument over any kind of civil rights has always been a curious one for me.  The dispute on the “against” side always seems to be that “this change will take something away from us.”  And then the imagination runs wild, especially in the gay rights argument.  If we allow homosexuals to marry or, as in the case of Milk, have equal opportunities for jobs and housing, then what’s next?  Yes, we open the door for beastiality to be OK or as is argued here, child molestation.  Really, I’ve never understood this argument.  There will always be gay people whether there are laws against it or not, and being gay in of itself hurts no one.  It seems a lot of time is being spent on keeping people from doing things that don’t affect the people making the argument against it.  And then we had this ignorant comment from new CNN personality DL Hughley the other day to gay columnist Dan Savage, “Well, you may have to march a little longer,” after pointing out that the gay rights movement is not as important as the civil rights movement of the sixties, as if that were the point.  It appears getting your rights has to be “more important” before it can be considered worthwhile.

As Milk shows, gay people have been marching for a long time.  In the midst of San Francisco policeman “cracking down on homosexual bars,” Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) comes to the city to open up a camera shop in the Castro district and start a new life.  That life is immediately joined by his lover Scott Smith (James Franco).  As he and Milk are told when the shop opens, they can be kicked out just as easily as they came in, which is a reminder that the stereotype of San Francisco was not in any sort of force in the seventies.  Knowing this is wrong, Milk finds all the gays he can find in the area, forms his own business union, and basically makes it so that if a business doesn’t have the support of gay people, it goes out of business.

Milk’s activism leads to his wanting to be a politician, and much of the movie shows his failed candidacies for Board of Supervisors in the early going.  With the philosophy that “winning isn’t everything,” Milk makes progress towards acceptance during the decade even in defeat.  With a re-districting coming up, Milk runs again in 1977, costing him his relationship with Scott, who had been helping him with his campaigns, but finally winning with the help of the tenacious Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) and new campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill).  He also takes on a new boyfriend, the obsessive Jack Lira (Diego Luna).

One conflict as he enters the Board of Supervisors are a giant campaign by Anita Bryant (using archival footage) and California state senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) to be able to fire anyone who is gay from their job.  Bryant has been going around the country, helping overturn equal treatment laws all across the land.  But Harvey Milk and his followers have begun to inspire people around the country, and the fight by Bryant and Briggs has become difficult.  Proposition 6, which is Briggs’ brainchild, is getting a vote come November.

The other conflict is with his fellow board member, Dan White (Josh Brolin).  White has difficulty getting his own legislation passed, is not as popular as Milk, and massive resentment begins to fester.  Milk tries hard to get White on his side, but White isn’t a great politician by any means and, seeing Milk’s laws getting passed while his go in the toilet, he resigns…only to want his job back after a meeting with uniformed police officers.  Milk tells Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) that re-instating White would seem like an anti-gay stance, considering that Milk’s only opposition on the board has been White.

It is White who will later assassinate Moscone and Milk.  The movie isn’t so much about that, though.  It’s about a minority group of people making a stand that is unpopular but trying to win one believer at a time.  It’s an uphill climb with lots of ignorant rhetoric and violence along the way.  Sean Penn delivers, yet again, another great performance in a career full of them.  When you can watch a Penn performance without thinking of the hardcore liberal persona he has created outside the camera, then you know you’re seeing him at his very best.  While there is able support from all of the Milk followers played by Hirsch, Franco, and Pill, Josh Brolin makes the most of his small role, a heartbreakingly damaged individual who genuinely seems torn between playing ball and staying his old Catholic conservative self.

There is a nicely tossed-aside moment where Milk says, “I think he may be one of us,” referring to perhaps closet homosexuality, but I think it’s the film’s statement that White is just a guy who feels alone and has no one fighting for him.  It is one of my favorite moments in the film, in that Milk can see the pain even in someone who appears to have everything…that even a straight individual with a loving family with no apparent disadvantage shares some kinship to a minority group.  In turn, this turns out to be a fatal flaw in Harvey Milk.  I’m not sure if the film is going out of its way to make this statement, but it shows that Milk perhaps didn’t do everything to help out a potential ally despite seeing similarities in his own struggle.  But one man can only do so much.

This is better than most biopics in that it doesn’t try to sum up a man’s life in some sort of “hit list” of events.  It seems more plot-driven than most biopics, so it’s highly watchable.

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