In his 25 years as a filmmaker, Gus Van Sant has made only one or two other films as conventional as Milk, his biopic about the pioneering gay San Francisco city supervisor. The most successful was Good Will Hunting, which is about as different from his artier movies (Elephant, My Own Private Idaho, Gerry) as a Hollywood crowd-pleaser can be.
That says as much about 2008 as it does about Van Sant. Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978, an era when the most famous mainstream gay American film was The Boys in the Band, which left a bitter (not bittersweet) taste. Movies like that took place inside people's homes, their metaphoric closets. Milk takes place on the streets, where its protagonist and his movement lived.
The fact that an actor of stature like Sean Penn would star in Milk is progress. The fact that the movie comes to us shortly after the defeat of Proposition 8 is not. But then there's Connecticut and Massachusetts, and Canada, Spain, South Africa and the Netherlands, and maybe soon New York.
Would Harvey Milk have imagined any of this progress happening in his full lifetime? Yes -- and no. He probably would have been ragingly angry that things have come only this far -- and overjoyed with how far they've come.
Milk is just as yin and yang. On the one hand, it recreates an important civil-rights movement in fine dramatic form. On the other, it's clearly a movie that wants to teach the masses what every educated progressive already knows. That's a good strategy, but it suffers from bad timing: Van Sant should have released Milk in October, in time for the elections, and not in December, in time for the Oscars.
In a way, Milk is less groundbreaking than the watered-down Philadelphia was in 1993. That could mean it's harder to break ground now, although it could also mean that Milk doesn't try.
Van Sant and his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, have a lot of two different stories to tell: There's the early San Francisco days of the emerging national gay-rights movement, and there's the more intimate story of Harvey Milk and the young gay men (and a few women) around him. They emphasize the former, which they tell in two dimensions, relegating the latter to one.
Still, Milk is very entertaining: smartly written, handsomely filmed, and finely acted, especially by Penn, who gives one of those uncannily precise impersonations of a historic figure that you can't stop watching. His Harvey is a ceaseless optimist, but also a man who, in the last year of his life, becomes aware of the danger he's in. The movie's framing device is a testament that Harvey dictates into a tape recorder, reflecting on his life and hopes, and also presaging his assassination.
Milk opens with a documentary sequence to remind us that in 1970, San Francisco was just like most other big cities: If you were gay, you risked arrest, and if you were smart, you hid your face from the cameras when they arrested you. Harvey was then still living in New York, where he worked as an insurance-company drone. Then, on the eve of his 40th birthday, he met Scott Smith (James Franco), a handsome lad swept up by Harvey's innocent charm.
Soon they're in San Francisco, looking for an uncloseted life. They find it, but there's still plenty of hostility toward open displays of affection. So Harvey, with shaggy hair and a pony tail now, gets involved in politics. He loses three elections before San Francisco creates defined districts for city supervisors rather than at-large seats. Next time out, he runs in his neighborhood, the Castro, and he wins handily.
So does Dan White (James Brolin), an Irish-Catholic ex-cop with a new baby in his arms and a cross of Jesus on his chest. Harvey tries to make friends, and White almost seems to try as well. But within the year, history and mental illness intervened. White served five years for killing Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), then killed himself two years after his release from prison.
Most of Milk focuses on Harvey's political battles: his runs for office, his fight to get a gay-rights law in San Francisco, and his surprisingly successful battle against Proposition 6, which would have made it illegal for homosexuals to be school teachers in California. (His nemesis is an odious state senator played by Denis O'Hare.)
Van Sant films this drama with speed and energy, pausing every 10 scenes or so for an intimate moment with Harvey and Scott, and after their breakup, with Harvey and Jack (Diego Luna), his cute but unstable new, much younger boyfriend. We get no sense of their complexity, and only a superficial look at their home lives. That's the other movie in Milk, perhaps a project for the director's cut.
Milk was filmed around San Francisco, in the locations where it happened, and it recreates the hair and clothes and look of the scene. Black's script is intelligent and concise, with plenty of lines to take home. It has little subtext, but it does remind us that the Christian right emerged as a political force in opposition to gay rights. (We get lots of Anita Bryant and her pie-in-the-eye hope of stopping social progress.) The portrait is fair, and there are no villains, just people who were (and still are) on the wrong side of history.
Toward the end of Milk, with freedom once again on the line, Harvey tells people that coming out is important, because every person who comes out to friends and family wins two votes for the cause. But what about privacy, someone asks him? "At this moment and at this time," he replies, "privacy is the enemy." He was right, of course. Remembering his death now, 30 years later, reminds us of how slowly things change, and of how quickly time passes.
Starts Fri., Dec. 12.