The man who blew up America's closets

Sean Penn leaps to the front of the Oscar race with his uncanny invocation of the slain gay-rights leader. Gus Van Sant's vibrant biopic meets the challenge -- almost.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 26, 2008 12:50PM (EST)

Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and George Moscone (Victor Garber)

For me and for anybody else who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone on Nov. 27, 1978, came as the second half of a traumatic double whammy -- a regionally and culturally specific version of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. As I remember it, I was standing in the hallway outside the journalism office at Berkeley High School, talking to a couple of friends on the paper. (I was the editor.) We may well have been talking about stories we were working on in the aftermath of the so-called Jonestown massacre, the mass murder-suicide of more than 900 people, including quite a few with connections to our city and our school, that had happened just nine days earlier in the Guyanese jungle.

Someone came into the hall and told us what had just happened a few miles away, on the other side of the bay. A black-and-white TV was dragged out of the closet, plugged in and kicked around for a while until we could find a station. One of my friends took out a pencil and wrote on the wall: "11/27/78: Milk and Moscone just GOT SHOT!!" I guess he was blogging without knowing it. That scribble stayed there unmolested until after we graduated.

Thirty years later, almost to the day, and after a bewildering number of fits and starts with various directors and actors, the story of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk -- a crucial strand, but not the only strand, in that chaotic autumn of 1978 -- reaches us as a major feature film, with Sean Penn in the lead role and Gus Van Sant behind the camera. There are an awful lot of things to say about "Milk," and it's a film that, for anyone who knows the history of these events, will bump into a bunch of questions it isn't remotely equipped to answer.

"Milk" was never going to be just another movie, and in a season marked by the simultaneous election of our first black president and the enactment of a gay-marriage ban in California, it's in danger of becoming primarily a symbol or a statement, and not a movie at all. (For instance, there is an announced boycott of Cinemark theaters showing the film, because of the chain owner's purported anti-gay politics.) But let's say the simplest things first: This is an affectionately crafted, celebratory biopic about a sweet, shrewd, hard-assed, one-of-a-kind historical figure. And they can just FedEx the Oscar to Sean Penn's house right now, so that we don't have to listen to his acceptance speech.

I don't know that this is Penn's best performance, overall -- let's have that debate some other time -- but as far as the mannered, immersive impersonations of his later career go, Harvey Milk takes the cake. Penn is such a powerful mimic that there's a certain danger in assigning him to play a well-documented public personality, especially one with Milk's quirks and tics. In a city of buff and beautiful gay men, Milk had funny hair, bad clothes (when he broke into politics, he bought three secondhand suits and wore them over and over again), a big honker and an abrasive Long Island accent. He was ferociously loyal to his friends and allies but could be ruthless toward others; his sweetness and compassion concealed a powerful will and a provocative, prankish sense of humor. Penn grabs all these qualities and rides them right to the edge of caricature before somehow, seemingly at the last instant, assembling them into a vital and complicated human character.

If Penn doesn'tbear a strong physical resemblance to Milk, that doesn't matter. It's a magical performance, one that turns a fairly ordinary up-with-people historical flick into a must-see. There were plenty of times during "Milk" when I stopped asking myself questions about Penn and the cinematography and the re-creations of San Francisco moments and locations (often in situ, as with Milk's camera shop at 575 Castro Street) and just got swept up into the enigmas of Harvey Milk's life and career and politics: Why is he doing that? Isn't that a political mistake? Or am I having a homophobic moment? How does Milk's legacy of combining confrontation and shrewd strategy relate to Martin Luther King? To Obama? How would Milk handle the aftermath of Prop. 8?

Actually, I have a pretty good idea how Milk would be doing that: He'd be fighting on all fronts at once, directing righteous anger into the streets and working behind the scenes on a longterm strategy to shame the majority population into reversing this decision. "Milk" is essentially a history of its subject's six-year career in San Francisco politics, which both gives it a manageable focus and limits its possibilities. One thing Dustin Lance Black's script does exceptionally well is demonstrate how rapidly Milk evolved as a politician. A recent East Coast transplant, Korean War vet and Goldwater Republican who'd spent years halfway in the closet while working at New York financial jobs, the Milk of 1972 was a neighborhood businessman who thought that gay capital and gay consumers should seize their share of power in what was then (believe it or not) a relatively conservative city dominated by white-ethnic clan politics and the Catholic church.

By the time of his death, Milk was already a statewide political figure in a place known, then and now, as the leading edge of American politics. Certainly within the gay community he was a national populist hero well before he became a martyr. He had spearheaded the brilliantly successful campaign against the 1978 "Briggs initiative" (aka Prop. 6) -- more or less the Prop. 8 of its day -- which would have barred gay teachers, and potentially their non-gay friends and supporters, from jobs in California public schools.

As usual, Milk's strategy ran on at least two tracks: He sought to channel the anger and passion of burgeoning gay neighborhoods like the Castro or West Hollywood into political organizing, and he sought to systematically and patiently confront the straight majority with the stupidity and shallowness of its prejudice. As the movie depicts, he debated initiative sponsor John Briggs before a hostile crowd in the latter's right-leaning legislative district (where the initiative wound up failing). Together with schoolteacher Tom Ammiano (today a leading San Francisco politician, just elected to the state Legislature) Milk crafted the slogan "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" -- the idea being that if straight people understood how many gays they already knew and accepted on a personal level, their abstract bigotry would be significantly undermined.

It worked. All right, the fact that Republican presidential contender Ronald Reagan himself opposed the initiative gave an awful lot of white hetero conservative Californians cover to vote against it. But for me and, I imagine, millions of other people in the state, the spring of 1978 was full of minor revelations: one of my high-school teachers, a girl I bought coffee from sometimes, the guy at Whole Earth Access who knew the most about computers. I grew up in the most liberal city in the most liberal region of the country. I knew that gay people existed, over there across the bay in Harvey Milk's district. But until that year I didn't personally know any -- or rather, I didn't know I did.

In the famous tape-recorded testament that provides the spine to Black's screenplay, Milk says, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." That was too much to ask, of course, but Milk's M.O. was always to make grand, idealistic pronouncements in public and then work like hell in private to accomplish whatever was realistic. Milk served only 11 months in elected office (as a San Francisco supervisor, the equivalent of a city councilman in other cities) and he certainly was not the first openly gay elected official in the United States -- although he may have been the first one elected on that basis. But his example was enormously powerful; if Milk didn't destroy the closet, he made it possible for gays who were out and proud to be leading public citizens for the first time.

In capturing '70s San Francisco and the explosive political movement that erupted around Harvey Milk, Van Sant relies on a large and lively supporting cast and cinematographer Harris Savides, who did such wonders with the place and period in David Fincher's "Zodiac." It's a noteworthy contrast, because while "Milk" is an appealing swirl of bodies and music and energy and (mostly) hopefulness, it lacks the mysterious vision that infused Fincher's film, the vision that made its California landscape seem both sun-kissed and death-haunted. Mind you, Van Sant isn't trying to make a dark film, or one haunted by death, despite the act of strange and terrible violence that ended Milk's life (and which we see here, in dreamy, silent, overly aestheticized fashion).

I can admire the professional flexibility that leads Van Sant from slow-motion, half-experimental works like "Paranoid Park" or "Last Days" to an inspirational, Oscar-season package like "Milk," but I wish he could split the difference between his two modes more effectively. He blends archival news footage (a lot of it from Rob Epstein's wonderful 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk") gracefully in with his newly shot material, and the re-creations of such historical events as Milk's rowdy 1977 election-night street party or his "Hope" speech on Gay Freedom Day in 1978 are flawless. There's a lot of warmth to "Milk," and a lot of the historical authenticity that comes from talking to the right people and shooting in the right places.

Even though Penn takes control of every scene he's in, Emile Hirsch is wonderfully vivid as Cleve Jones, a wide-eyed street kid from Phoenix whom Milk takes under his wing (and today a veteran San Francisco activist and politician). James Franco conveys the long-suffering composure of Scott Smith, Milk's ex-lover turned friend, and I really appreciated Joseph Cross' witty performance as Milk's whiz-kid political aide, Dick Pabich. (I worked with Dick at SF Weekly in the early '90s; unfortunately he's not here today to be delighted by seeing himself receiving a blow job on the big screen.) The only thing I can say about the casting of artist Jeff Koons as Art Agnos, Milk's onetime political opponent and a future San Francisco mayor, is that Koons is fine and that to the small number of people familiar with both of those people's careers it will seem like the weirdest coupling imaginable.

What Van Sant and Black end up with here, even with Penn's above-and-beyond portrayal at its heart, is a solid, respectful, by-the-numbers historical picture. It's too smart to be simplistic or hagiographic -- Penn's Milk is, quite correctly, sometimes prickly and arrogant and has dubious taste in men -- but it still tries to construct a linear, coherent narrative out of events that don't necessarily make sense. To bring up the 800-pound gorilla we haven't been talking about, Josh Brolin does a wonderful job of making Dan White, Milk and Moscone's assassin, seem like a damaged and confused person rather than a homophobic monster. (After playing George W. Bush and Dan White, what's next for Brolin? Is a biopic of Nicolae Ceausescu in the works?)

Black's screenplay leans pretty hard on the peculiar idea that White, a married ex-cop and ex-fireman from what was then an old-line, white Catholic neighborhood, was damaged and confused in a particular way -- that he was a closet case who was obsessed with Harvey Milk. Granted, this isn't just Black's theory. It was also Harvey Milk's theory about White, as detailed in Randy Shilts' masterful book "The Mayor of Castro Street." (Officially, "Milk" does not use Shilts' book as source material, because the book was optioned for a different film that will probably never be made.) That doesn't mean that it explains anything, even if it's true, beyond the peculiar intensity of the two men's political and personal relationship, which was even stranger in reality than it is in the film.

White didn't go to San Francisco City Hall on Nov. 27, 1978, just to kill Harvey Milk. He shot Mayor George Moscone first, after all -- the first truly progressive mayor of San Francisco, now reduced to a footnote to history -- and then Milk. By his own admission, White also intended to kill Carol Ruth Silver, another liberal supervisor, and then-Assemblyman and future mayor Willie Brown, but lost his nerve.

White believed himself personally and politically slighted by all those people, and believed (correctly) that Milk and Moscone had seized the opportunity for a backroom power play when White resigned his seat on the board of supervisors and then tried to take it back. Beyond that, White saw a glimmering of something else: Milk and Moscone represented the birth of a new era of coalition politics in America's big cities, when the white-ethnic neighborhood machines were dying out and intensely negotiated partnerships between gays, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, white yuppies and other groups would become the order of the day.

Dan White was a demented caricature of a Reagan Democrat -- admittedly a stereotype that didn't quite exist in 1978 -- a beaten-down working-class white populist driven insane by the rise of the urban, polycultural, gay-friendly left. By all accounts he was a lonely, intense oddball, not well liked in his own community, and he clearly tried to befriend Harvey Milk before deciding to kill him. But after the crime White was, at least briefly, embraced as a hero by many members of San Francisco's police department, which at the time remained a bastion of old-school Irish Catholic values and right-wing political views.

White's crimes were, in the moment, a nonsensical act of destruction directed by a paranoid individual against the entire world. I'm inclined to believe that on that day White's feelings about Harvey Milk's sexuality, whatever they were, played almost no role. Only in retrospect and in context -- that context being White's shockingly light sentence, the ensuing riots and the 30 years of contentious history that followed -- did the murder become a homophobic hate crime. (White himself committed suicide in 1985, about a year after his release from prison.)

Of course it's not fair to fault "Milk" for not being as thoughtful and as complicated, or as profoundly tragic, as nonfiction works like Shilts' book or Epstein's film. It may be more surprising that Van Sant has made a film that's so clean and pretty, and that makes little effort to capture the darkness and craziness of that fall of 1978 in San Francisco. Part of me regrets all the other potential films about that history that we'll never see now. But "Milk" is good enough, thanks mostly to Penn's uncanny evocation, to bring Harvey Milk alive as a vital and highly relevant figure, rather than a distant political abstraction or gay saint. (He very definitely was neither.)

Milk in life was a complicated and highly intelligent man, but not one subject to philosophical deep thinking. His signature moment as a San Francisco politician (captured entertainingly in the film) was when he stepped in dog shit on purpose for the news cameras, in support of a pooper-scooper law that instantly made him a citywide hero. He always thought that his role was to bring hope to a ghettoized community with little sense of its own potential power, or to a runaway kid from Texas who was turning tricks on Polk Street because he had no self-esteem. Scooping up the shit and giving hope to the hopeless; that's change I can still believe in.

"Milk" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major cities, with wide national release to begin Dec. 5.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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