Milk is director Gus Van Sant's presentation of San Francisco activist and politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay officeholder in America. The film follows Milk (Sean Penn ) from his initial introduction to long-time partner Scott Smith (played ably by James Franco ) in New York, though their arrival in San Francisco and abrupt introduction to the prevailing attitudes of The Castro. It's a traditionally Irish, working class community none-too-pleased with it's gradual transformation to a Gay Mecca. As Milk opens a camera store and introduces himself to a neighbor, he's told in no uncertain terms that he's not welcome. Nightly beatings administered to gay men by police officers show that The Castro in 1971 is not yet the safe area it will become.
Those initial setbacks and slights lead Milk to form a gay-friendly neighborhood business group. It's a savvy move by a man who at first seems a little burnt out and slackerish. The neighborhood's changing population rallies behind local gay and gay-friendly businesses. Soon, the Teamsters are asking Milk's group to support their boycott of Coors beer. Almost immediately, Coors is cut out of the area's bars and clubs, and the company accedes to union demands. Milk, though still a hippie, decides to take his newfound clout to City Hall, and runs for a seat on the Board of Supervisors.
He loses. A lot. The film, which certainly details with loving care the gay rights movement in the 70's, has at its core a character study of a man who's doggedness never leaves him. Harvey Milk's rise in politics comes after years of setbacks and failures. His stubborn refusal of incrementalism (a tack supported by The City's Advocate newspaper and biggest gay political players) moves Milk from Laughingstock to gadfly to insurgent to potent political force.
Arriving to City Hall with Milk is working-class politician Dan White (Josh Brolin ). White is an earnest guy who is clearly outmatched by the office he holds, and by the players around him, especially Milk. Milk immediately takes to White, trying to navigate the flustered Supervisor into his own way of thinking, and offering to trade support for White's vote on a gay rights ordinance. Milk backs out on the deal, infuriating White and setting into motion the emotional spiral that leads the the story's tragic ending.
Brolin gives White gentle treatment. He conjures a villain driven to desperate action by his own inner turmoil and inability to cope with the politics of his time. It's a subtle performance that may be lost in the thicket of strong work by the rest of the cast.
As Milk's star rises on the left coast, there's trouble brewing in Florida. Religious Singer and all-around nut Anita Bryant spearheads ballot initiatives to refuse gay and lesbian citizens to rights. Successful there, Bryant begins working across the country to repeal laws that protect gay rights.
Milk sees in Bryant's movement a chance to curtail to rollback of rights, and picks a fight to get her into the state. It works, and the second half of the film is powered by the movement against Prop 6, a state ballot initiative that would allow schools to fire gay teachers. Milk, having moved from well-meaning but sloppy activist to slick political operator, has Mayor George Moscone on his side as they work against the measure.
Milk's personal life is strained by the constant campaigning and activism, and the easy-going Smith becomes estranged from his partner. After Milk reneges on a promise to quit poliitcs, Smith leaves him. It's an emotional split left understated by Van Sant. Penn and Franco present a couple with unfinished business, and their interactions after the break-up are filled with longing and frustration.
If Smith offered Milk a chance at a quieter life filled with love and companionship, Emile Hirsch's Cleve Jones gives him a different opportunity. Jones is introduced as a young trick cruising when he first meets Milk. Over time, Jones is transformed by Milk from uninterested kid to disaffected rioter to potent activist. Where Smith offers Milk the chance to remain himself, Jones gives him the chance to create a lasting movement.
A second lover, Jack Lira (Diego Luna) is a frustrating, needy character disliked by Milk's staff, and sometimes by Milk himself. Jack's constant demands for attention and reassurance are symptoms of a larger problem, which leaves Milk utterly dejected during the difficult Prop 6 battle.
Penn is clearly inspired by the material at hand, and brings to the screen a Milk that is full of life and mirth. His performance underlines Milk's single-mindedness in acheiving fundamentally simple goal: To earn the same rights for everyone. The impish charm deployed by Penn serves well for a politician different even by the standards of a city that gave the world the Merry Pranksters and Emperor Norton.
As the movie came to it's tragic and inevitable climax, a woman behind us began crying in the theater. I mean sobbing, right through the credits. It was a powerful movie, and Van Sant's treatment of Milk's fate was deftly handled, but you know it's coming, so what's with the waterworks? When we turned around, we saw that she was in her late teens or early 20's. She was too young to remember Milk and must have never learned about him in school or elsewhere.
A lot has been made about the timing of Milk's release, and the crying girl made me wonder whether there's something to the idea that releasing Milk in the summer could have helped with California's Prop 8 battle. Would a movie about the struggle for gay rights have helped defeat th proposal? Maybe so. The portrayal of the gay rights movement is central to the theme, but it's presented as an almost inevitable conclusion for a society moving towards more rights for everyone.
The film's mantra is progress. It does not tut-tut anyone or present a syrupy dissertation on why it's important to support gay rights. Van Sant believes his audience already knows it's important, and that level of trust makes for a stronger story. A lesser film would have been seen as an attempt to sermonize and manipulate, and produced an anti-gay backlash. A late-Summer Milk release? We'll never know.