I saw Gus van Sant’s new hagio-pic Milk in a grim old-folks-and-truckers casino on the western edge of Las Vegas last week. What it was doing in that casino’s theater I don’t know, although I suspect the literate, sensitive young man taking tickets might have been put in charge of programming. (I know he was sensitive and literate because he was reading The Kite Runner. Feel Afghanistan’s pain! Feel it!) Anyway, I was in Vegas to see my sister, who normally lives a continent away, but who’d been brought to Sin City for a TDY at Nellis AFB. We ate dinner at the awful, unconscionable buffet and tried not to gape in naked horror at the wretches and their blinking addict-boxes, we had our spirits brought low, and we were ready to be uplifted.
And guess what? It worked. Milk totally, totally works. Everything about it works. It’s complete Hollywood schmaltz in the best possible sense, but it’s never manipulative in the way I sometimes felt Brokeback Mountain was. It’s an eloquent argument for gay rights, but before that it’s a portrait of this charming, bantamweight little New York Jew who could walk into a Teamsters union hall and win them over by being both stronger and more vulnerable than they expect. Sean Penn and Gus van Sant’s Harvey Milk is an amazing figure, a self-made American original, as recognizably a son of our national DNA as Malcolm X or Charles Foster Kane.
I have generally hated van Sant’s previous mainstream efforts (really, dude, you wanna remake Psycho?), but this is his most exuberant and passionate work since My Own Private Idaho. Not coincidentally, it’s also his gayest. In fact, the two form a pair of sexually explicit bookends — Idaho tells the story of sad young hustlers, but Milk celebrates the love and sexual confidence that can come later in life. The two kinds of life are linked in the opening scene, where Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk impetuously hits on James Franco’s Scott Smith in the subway, a creepy moment filled with danger that underlines the strangeness of being a closeted gay who can only meet lovers in absolute anonymity. Yet it also turns out to lead to the most important relationship of Milk’s life. I’m not sure how historically accurate this is; it’s possible, I suppose, that van Sant wants to make a point about the possibilities of gay monogamy, though he’s honest about it — in practice the characters seem as emotionally stupid as their straight contemporaries. In a devastating scene later in the film, Scott threatens to leave if Harvey runs for office again, and Harvey calmly eats a chip and says nothing.
But Harvey’s a classic American type, a guy whose dream is bigger than his life. He lets Scott go, runs again, and makes history. In the first half of the film, Harvey’s journey from closeted New York banker to Castro businessman and minor agitator, we see signs of his confidence and political skill, but it’s his sweetness and charm that predominate. But after he’s elected, Harvey starts to show signs of an ideological ruthlessness that, in an ordinary, VH1-style biopic, he would later come to regret. But Harvey doesn’t come to regret it, and van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black make it pretty clear that Harvey’s cold side is what enables his sweet side’s ideals to triumph.
Unfortunately, it also seems to be what gets him killed. Anyone remotely familiar with the historical events knows that Harvey Milk was shot, and the term almost always used is “assassinated,” implying that he was shot for his political stances or for being openly gay. And for a while the film plants red herrings to make you think that as well — Harvey receives hate mail and death threats (“you’re dead the second you take the stage”) daily, yet courageously continues to speak at open-air rallies. So it comes as something of a surprise when his assassin seems not to have any clear ideological motive. Dan White (Josh Brolin) is certainly uncomfortable with Harvey’s homosexuality, but his discomfort doesn’t seem strong enough to motivate him to kill — even though, in the script’s weakest moment, Harvey and his aides speculate about whether Dan is just an extreme closet case.
Instead what emerges is a Dan White who’s unstable to begin with and who’s politically flanked by an unrepentant, gleeful Harvey at every turn. You start to feel bad for White, as insensitive and boorish as he is, because he’s so clearly outclassed, so clearly failing as a politician. And when he resigns in pique and then tries to get his job back, it’s Harvey Milk who pressures the mayor not to allow him back in. All of a sudden the “assassination” of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone seems much less like a political killing and much more like plain old-fashioned revenge.
This is a strange and brave position for the filmmakers to take, because it undermines Milk’s martyrdom to a pretty serious degree. That doesn’t make Milk’s courage less moving — after all, he was still under constant threat, and if it hadn’t been White it might well have been a serious ideologue sometime later — but it does make the story less neat. I’m grateful for that, because when you remove the martyrdom, something interesting happens — the overall worth of Milk’s efforts becomes apparent. His actual worth is not hidden behind a halo, as it is in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s allowed his humanity and his bastardly moments without needing to redeem or paint over them — a pretty rare thing in biopics.