Where’s Harvey Milk When We Need Him?

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Dec 2, 2008

Directed By Gus Van Sant
Focus Features, 2008

There was a special poignancy in seeing Milk the day after waking up to find that the same electorate that had chosen Barack Obama as the country’s next president had banned gay marriage in California, Arizona, and Florida.

The story of Harvey Milk, the country’s first openly gay elected official, Milk is the latest work of Gus Van Sant, the country’s foremost openly gay filmmaker. Harvey Milk made history in 1977, when, in the midst of singer Anita Bryant’s national anti-gay rights campaign, he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (the equivalent of New York’s City Council) as a representative of the emerging gay Castro district. He made history again a year later when he successfully led the opposition to a California initiative that would have banned all gay people and their supporters from teaching in the state’s public schools. A few months later, he was fatally shot, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, by ex-Supervisor Dan White, whose effort to rescind his resignation from the board had been rejected by Moscone.

I had spent the week before the election in San Francisco, where every day my host received multiple mailings urging her to vote “No” on Proposition 8, California’s anti-gay marriage ballot initiative. On the morning after Election Day, it appeared that the Prop 8 opponents would have spent their money more wisely blanketing the central parts of the state with their message; it was there that the votes were cast that passed the initiative.

The gay rights electoral debacle is relevant to any assessment of Milk, the movie. Despite the best efforts of Van Sant at the helm and the fiery presence of Sean Penn in the title role, Milk suffers from the standard problems of film biography, especially political film biography. On the one hand, it’s talky; all too much of it consists of speeches, which aren’t so bad when Milk is orating to—and moving—a crowd, but become a bit tedious when he’s hectoring lovers, friends, and strangers on the street on gay rights and the politics thereof. On the other hand, as is so often the case, the tight focus on the subject of the biography tends to drastically reduce the development of other characters. Harvey Milk’s lovers, for example, tend to appear and disappear without much in the way of motive. Even the assassin Dan White (Josh Brolin), the second most significant character in the film, remains murky and out of focus—is he fleeing from his own unwelcome homoerotic impulses? Is he a drunk with a permanent sense of grievance? Both? To this reviewer’s eye, at least, Van Sant and scriptwriter Dustin Lance Black have failed to explain what makes that particular man load a gun and come hunting opponents with murder in his heart. Finally, unfortunately, for all Penn’s fire, he doesn’t seem nearly as charismatic as Harvey Milk must have been.

So much for Milk as entertainment. As a political broadside and lesson, however, it’s both inspiring and vitally necessary. We need to remember that only a couple of decades ago it was possible to persuade the public at large that diversity wasn’t dangerous; we need to remember, or relearn, how it was done. Right now, we need to see Milk.

©Judith Mahoney Pasternak

 Milk opens in theaters December 5.



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