Milk (2008)

Dir. Gus van Sant. Starring Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin

There are some real howlers in the history of Best Picture winners. One thinks The Artist in 2011. 2011 wasn’t a terribly strong year,  but Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy were at least viable options. (Bridesmaids and A Separation, for their own reasons, would never have been viable choices.) Yet there’s no question that the wrong choice was made; there’s no justice when unpretentious silent movies like The Mountain Eagle or The Reveille are probably lost forever and The Artist will be available for $7.99 at every Target until the end of time.

And then there are years like 2008, years so deep that they change the way that the Academy does business. Slumdog Millionaire won the big prize, while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, and Milk were all nominated. (The Dark Knight and WALL-E, as you may recall, were not, and thus the change to as many as ten nominees the following year.) Slumdog was a reasonable choice. Benjamin Button, as many people have noted, is high-concept Forrest Gump. I spent no small amount of time savaging Frost/Nixon a little while ago. The Reader is a film that is much more difficult than Schindler’s List, and maybe that’s why people don’t like it very much. And that leaves Milk, one of the best movies of the last ten years, and the film that would, in a just world, have taken the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2008.

Harvey Milk (Penn) is a late-blooming political dynamo. At age forty (Harvey’s birthdays are used to mark the passage of time), he’s still working for an insurance company. He picks up a guy named Scott Smith (James Franco, probably in my favorite role of his) in the subway. As the day changes, Harvey sighs and leans back against the wall. He’s forty, and he hasn’t done a thing that he’s proud of.

I love this movie because Harvey Milk of Milk is a great man. (I have no doubt that Harvey Milk of Reality was a great man, but I haven’t seen him nearly as many times as I’ve seen Harvey Milk of Milk; when I refer to Harvey Milk, I refer to the movie version.) Harvey Milk is a great man because he is ruled by doubt, because there is no room in his life for anyone but himself, and that those two massive fault lines in his personality make him the only man in this cast of characters who could conceivably do all he did.

Milk is an exercise in character foils, which is necessary for the movie to make its point about how exceptional Milk was. Each of its foils for Milk – Smith, Cleve Jones (Hirsch), Jack Lira (Diego Luna), and Dan White (Brolin) – functions to show how Milk is within and without them, to borrow a phrase; in other words, how each of them is an intrinsic piece of Milk’s successes, and how none of them could become as great as Milk.

Scott Smith is an attractive character. Out and proud, Smith is depicted as being surprisingly okay with the status quo, even while he’s working on Milk’s campaigns. He holds the same opinions as Milk at the outset of the film; while Harvey is on his literal soapbox, proclaiming in his all-denim outfit his first candidacy for public office, Smith helps him set up and manages the crowd. While Milk proclaims himself pro-gay, anti-cop, pro-schools, pro-seniors, and anti-guns, Smith provides a low-tech AV demonstration. Yet Smith doesn’t make the movement his life the way that Milk plans to. In one scene, he clears out the apartment during a campaign meeting so he and Milk can eat. He semi-jokingly tells Harvey that if he hears anything more about speeches, campaigns, or anything else of the kind, he will stab him with his dinner fork. Milk’s decision to run for City Supervisor one more time – in the one election in his life that he won – is the last straw for Smith, who leaves him. Their personal divergence splinters into political divergence as well. In the debate over Prop 6, after Milk has called an emergency grassroots meeting and demanded that everyone come out to everyone they know, Smith argues that he can’t ask the young people in the room to lose their families. Milk counters, reasonably enough (and predictably, in his case), that if their families cannot accept them because they’re gay, then they should lose their families.  Smith’s reply is icy: “Yeah, what about you, Harvey?” he asks. Milk, we find out, never came out to any of his family members. “You want to be normal as much as anybody,” Smith says. “More than anybody.” The difference between them is stark; Scott Smith, who is as clear-eyed and empathetic as anyone else in the film, believes that the movement is made of people, and that people have lives beyond the movement. Harvey Milk thinks of himself as the vanguard of a movement, an Enjolras-esque figure: “Our little lives don’t count at all.” The movie makes the case that without Harvey Milk playing Enjolras, Prop 6 passes and a massive human rights abuse is signed off on by the nation’s most populous state. Scott Smith’s point of view, on a person-to-person basis, is the most humane outlook of anyone’s in the film, and it is a recipe for disaster.

Cleve Jones is my favorite character in the film, portrayed in Hirsch’s performance so well that I was certain that he was destined for stardom. (He’s only 30 now, but the time, alas, appears to have passed for him.) Jones is a smartaleck, a pain in the butt who nevertheless accedes to the number two positon in Milk’s fiefdom by the time Milk is elected to the Board of Supervisors. His great skill is as an organizer, able to call a few people and turn those calls into a thousand people in minutes. (The film was released in maybe the last year when such a skill would be impressive without the necessary caveat “without Twitter.”) But when Jones has those people captive, he has no idea what to do with them. Unlike Milk or Smith, he lacks the empathy to get inside everyone else’s head and, in Milk’s words, “tell them what they’re feeling.” It’s not until Milk is murdered that Jones manages to fulfill that role by leading a candlelit march of thousands; the film also tells us that Jones is the guy who came up with the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which came closer to winning the Nobel Peace Prize than Milk ever did. Jones is analytical and active, throbbing with nervous energy, maybe even more devoted to the movement than Milk. Milk, per a conversation late in the film with Smith, wants to come home to someone, detox a little. Jones shows no signs that he ever wants to turn his brain off.

Sort of a side note here. Not long after watching Milk for the millionth time, I started reading And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts, for the first time. It’s non-fiction, a journalistic approach from a journalist about the outbreak of AIDS and the slow reaction to it by virtually all parties. I’m not done yet, and in my ignorance  I didn’t realize how important the book or Shilts are/were to the gay political movement, but y’all, you need to stop reading this post and start reading that book. It’s like reading something made of fire. I’ve felt ill since I started reading it. I wish someone had told me about it ten years ago. Anyway, Cleve Jones is a fairly important figure in that text, and talking about him reminds me of And the Band Played On. Seriously. It’s three bucks for Kindle

I always think that Jack is in the movie longer than he is, which I suppose is a compliment to Diego Luna. No one likes him except Harvey. Jones and Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) actively put him down – so says Jack, anyway, and though we know that Cleve in particular is unimpressed with him (he refers to Jack as “Mrs. Milk” and “the First Lady” in different scenes about ten minutes apart), there’s never any proof that Jones or Kronenberg or any of the other Castro Street political team ever does anything to him. At a meeting of major political players trying to prepare for Prop 6, Jack does something which provides the most dynamite piece of dialogue in the film, albeit at the cost of Milk’s peace of mind:

David Rosenman: Your boyfriend is in the closet.

Harvey Milk: Excuse me, David?

Rick Stokes: The Latino has locked himself in the closet upstairs.

And, of course, when Harvey comes home at 6:15 one night after Jack called him, desperate to know when he would come home, Harvey finds a series of notes on the stairs leading to the apartment before finding Jack, hanging from the ceiling. This is not new. At one point in the film, Harvey tells Dan White that most of his partners have tried to kill themselves – or did – because he wanted to keep them in the closet.

Jack, who is annoying but tragic, soft-hearted and soft-spoken, is the life that Harvey wants to have. Harvey, whose desire to be normal undercuts but does not under-sever his will to greatness, needs to keep someone at home who will cook dinner, who will rub his shoulders, who will wait for him and be the one he doesn’t have to be serious around. The film character who most reminds me of Jack is Betty X in Malcolm X. Malcolm and Betty fool around less often than Harvey and Jack, but each great man keeps someone at home to feel normal, to keep grounded to something that relieves them. Betty, of course, believes in her husband’s movement – and her husband – more than Jack ever ties himself to Harvey’s, but their purpose as characters are very similar.

The final Harvey Milk foil is Dan White, played by Brolin in what is, improbably, the best performance in the film. It helps that Brolin in character looks just like Dan White (though Hirsch bears no small resemblance to the young Cleve Jones, and they certainly did their best with Sean Penn). White is a guy you know already. His name is boring. He looks like other men. He dresses like other ’70s types, and he’s familiar as a civil servant: he was a cop, and then a firefighter. He has a wife and a kid. He goes to church. He’s a homophobe. Seriously, you’ve met the guy.

Milk is sure that White’s homophobia – and, if we’re being real here, just about everyone’s homophobia – stems more from ignorance than from some arcane burning hatred. And he’s probably right. Homophobia isn’t the primary reason White killed Milk. (Not in the movie, anyway. I’m sure it weighed into real Dan White’s ‘reasoning,’ but we can’t ask him.) White killed Milk because he saw him as a power who emasculated him, who humiliated him in front of his city – his hometown – and his neighborhood and his family. Being emasculated by a gay man must have been an extra bee sting for Dan White, man’s man.

What I like about Milk is that the movie doesn’t shy away from Harvey Milk’s inner desire to be Boss Tweed. (Victor Garber’s Mayor Moscone makes a great comment on that line.) In that way, Dan White figures as Milk’s foil, both as a character and as a political rival. White is what Republicans used to be twenty years ago, and he wanders into San Francisco politics as a huge liberal wave sweeps, San Andreas-style, over the city. Harvey Milk was on the board with Dianne Feinstein, onetime Freedom Rider Carol Ruth Silver, Gordon Lau, who was the first Chinese-American voted to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and Nancy Pelosi’s brother-in-law, Ron. White is the lone dissenting vote on Milk’s proposal for a city ordinance protecting gay employees; meanwhile, White’s proposals, whether they’re about moving a halfway house or increasing supervisor pay, always fall flat. Both Milk and White want to be the big cheese, and (get ready for this), while some cheese may be White, all cheese is made from Milk. Just as Smith, Jones, and Jack all must fall short of Milk in their realms, so too does White fall short of Milk in his own.

What makes Milk different from everyone else, what sets him apart for greatness, is hope. Smith, for all his good qualities, cannot see a future in which people change. Jones is not about hope so much as he is results. Jack’s hope collapses tragically. And Dan White’s hopefulness, if he ever really had any to begin with, vanishes in a sea of white briefs and Twinkies and committee meetings where he always comes up on the wrong side of history. Harvey Milk gets to be Mr. Hope in this movie, and predictably, when screenwriter Dustin Lance Black lingers on that theme, the movie falters. Milk’s speech about hope at the Gay Parade is a keystone of his legacy, the closest parallel he has to the “I Have a Dream” speech. I confess, I barely listen to it. I can recite lines of dialogue from this movie easily; I’ve watched it over and over again; I couldn’t tell you more than a sentence or so from that speech.

When he runs against Art Agnos for State Assembly, Agnos tells him kindly that Milk’s message is a “downer,” focusing on negativity. “What are you for?” Agnos asks him. (Agnos gets probably the most sympathetic portrayal of any straight character in the film, not that we’re swimming in them, which is a good thing in a movie about Harvey Milk; the real Cleve Jones went to work for the real Art Agnos after Milk’s assassination.) This rings a bell for Milk, and from then on, his entire tone changes. He stops pursuing political ends by calling down fire and brimstone on those who oppose him. Milk is a gentle man whose first instinct is to help friends, foes, and strangers alike. (One could argue that’s what gets him killed, certainly.) The righteous rage becomes righteous anger instead, reined in and controlled and tied together with a message of civil action and, yes, hope.

It’s been a while – we’re closer to ten years than not since this film was released, incredible enough – since Barack Obama ( the young and hip indie version, mind you: not the one who doesn’t persecute white-collar crime and never does seem to get all the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan) won election. The election of Barack Obama to his first term predated the limited release of Milk by about three weeks. But both 2008’s Obama and Milk‘s Milk became defined by a word that bounces around our minds when change is in the air: hope. That hope eventually fades – Obama’s two terms will be remembered for great highs but also for remarkable lows; less than two years after Milk was assassinated, Ken Home’s symptoms were defined as AIDS.

The film, more power to it, still ends on a note of, if not triumph or joy, then certainty, a certainty which infects our most lasting hopefulness. “You gotta give ’em hope,” Milk says as he speaks into the microphone, recording the tape which is only to be played in the event of his assassination. “You gotta give ’em hope.”

There is a Sub Titles podcast episode that discusses Penn’s performance and playing against type in more detail. If you’re interested in listening to that episode, click here.

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