“You’re so adorable,” says Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) to Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) about half an hour into Gus Van Sant’s Milk. Well, so is Milk himself, and so is just about everyone else in the movie. Van Sant has made the film — and Dustin Lance Black has written it — with intelligent flair, and it’s certainly enjoyable. Yet part of me feels it’s a bit of a soft-serve. Even the bigots in the movie are adorably blinkered in their thinking, or at least they would’ve seemed that way if not for the recent passage of Proposition 8 in Milk’s own adopted state. Milk was obviously in the can long before Prop 8 went through, so its view of the homophobes of the ’70s has an amused distance: See, isn’t this darling, this is what people used to believe. Yeah, well, they still do.
Penn pours himself into the skin of Harvey Milk with what I can only call flamboyantly homosexual machismo. Penn is so ruggedly heterosexual in real life that he can afford to smooch and snuggle with young men onscreen and look completely comfortable. I generally hate movie love scenes between two heterosexual male actors, because they tend to be awkward — past a certain point, you can feel the actors forcing themselves into it. Van Sant, however, seems to have created a safe space for Penn and the other heteros playing gays — Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, James Franco — to tap into their inner queers. The sex in Milk, though not explicit, is hungry and happily hedonistic, pre-AIDS and without shame. The gay men in the movie have all flocked to San Francisco in order to finally be themselves; they fall into sex, and also ironic stereotypes, with relief.
I doubt whether a movie not written and directed by gay men could’ve expressed the heady sexual freedom of gay Frisco in the ’70s with such good humor and understanding. But Milk goes beyond sex, as Milk himself did, to argue for the humanity of gay people — to desexualize them in the hetero public eye, sort of, to define them in some way other than what they did in bed. In this telling, Milk is awfully cuddly, though with a sharp wit usually drawn verbatim from the actual Milk’s public statements or debates. Penn plays him as a sort of mother hen to all the gay boys, first and foremost, and then to any other disenfranchised citizens. Penn immerses himself pretty impressively, right down to what I’m sure is an ad-lib when a baby starts crying in mid-take and Penn’s Milk coos, “Oh, but you had such a beautiful christening!”
The baby is the son of Dan White (Josh Brolin), Milk’s fellow City Supervisor, who infamously murdered Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). According to Van Sant and Black, the devoutly religious White was a latent or closeted homosexual who couldn’t stand watching Milk succeed by being honest about himself. It’s a bit facile; a lot of factors were in play, including White’s frustration at not making enough money to support his family, as well as the recent deaths of 909 people at Jonestown (which the movie leaves out), a horror that blew every mind in the city (Jim Jones had been friendly with Moscone, and Milk had defended Jones to Jimmy Carter in a letter). Whatever White’s actual motives, Josh Brolin plays him as compassionately as he played George W. Bush, finding the tormented humanity in a stoic, unreflective politician. At times, his White seems to want to reach out to Milk, who never knows quite what to make of him.
Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, interesting if a bit dry, gave a historical context for Milk and his achievements; Milk offers a more personal context, giving equal time to Milk’s activities as aspiring and then successful City Supervisor and to Milk’s mostly dysfunctional romantic relationships. If you somehow combined the two films, I guess you’d have the perfect Harvey Milk film. Oddly, though, we come away from Milk with much stronger impressions of Emile Hirsch’s dismissive-brat-turned-committed-activist Cleve Jones or Diego Luna’s neurotically needy Jack Lira — or even Brolin’s Dan White, cracking slowly at the seams — than we do of Penn’s Milk, a satyr-martyr who barely stops to breathe. (Two separate boyfriends have to more or less force him to sit down and have a meal.) We feel warmth from Milk, but he’s a smiling blur; Penn brings a lot of physical effort to the job, but Milk never quite snaps into focus. We start to feel glad-handed, as if the movie were a Milk volunteer pressing a pamphlet on us.
There’s a tiny subplot that feels too Hollywood, though it actually happened (it’s recounted in Randy Shilts’ book The Mayor of Castro Street). Milk gets a late-night call from a gay kid in Minnesota whose parents are about to institutionalize him. Milk advises the kid to get the hell out of there on a bus, and then Van Sant cuts to a wide shot of the kid in a wheelchair — our hearts sink; the poor kid’s not going anywhere. Much later in the film, as Milk is celebrating the defeat of Proposition 6 (which would’ve made it legal to fire gay teachers), he gets another call from the same kid — who made it out of Minnesota to L.A., registered to vote, and cast his ballot against Prop 6. This was obviously too good for Van Sant and Black to leave out, and the kid is supposed to stand in for all the gay kids who drew courage and empowerment from Milk’s example. Harvey Milk was an icon and a hero, no question, but why has the movie made him into a teddy bear? The actual Milk was said to be abrasive and temperamental, sometimes difficult to work with. Which is fine; a person can be a prick and a slickster and still make significant societal gains — it probably helps if he’s a prick. The movie, though, looks at Milk with stars in its eyes.
Which, I suppose, is understandable. Harvey Milk was famous not only in San Francisco but throughout the country. We have yet to see his like again. Who’s out there on the bullhorn for gay rights? Whose picture in a newspaper will inspire a scared gay kid to come out? The filmmakers sand the edges off their hero, perhaps to reanimate him for a new generation. Maybe a complex human portrait isn’t what’s needed now. Milk always said “I want to recruit you,” and Van Sant and Black take Milk’s tumultuous life and fashion it into a recruiting poster. If it emboldens even one gay kid to leave the boonies and become a foot soldier in the war against Prop 8, so be it. But art never has deserved brownie points for good intentions.