Both ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘Milk’ are about individuals who battle and finally emerge victorious against gargantuan odds. Thankfully that’s where the similarity ends. Unlike the lucky protagonist of ‘SM’, the hero of the other film has nothing to thank his luck for. Born into a society that forced him to hide the true nature of his sexuality for several years, Harvey Milk an investment banker in New York is 40 before the unwelcome realization dawns on him “Forty years old and I haven't done a thing that I'm proud of”; he is only 46 and in public office for less than a year when he’s gunned down by fellow City Supervisor Dan White. Convinced by his lover Scott that he ‘needs a change’ Milk embarks on the journey of his life, one that will encompass and then surpass such tags as gay to include all minorities -- ‘All you tired, poor, huddled masses’ -- the words he echoes towards the film’s close and which are inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
There are those who protest that the film is exclusivist – restricted to a particular time in history, to a specific ‘kind’ of people. Such folks need to wake up and review the recent California Proposition 8 that bans gay marriages; they need to listen to Milk’s last speech a little more carefully for he is unambiguous in reiterating that he fights for all those disenfranchised, the marginalized, and the unsung. And God knows there are a few of those around and they sure aren’t all gay. The scenes of intimacy between Milk and his first lover Scott and later with Jack are shot with such clear eyed understanding of what constitutes real intimacy - the blending together of lives and personalities - that it transcends the gay experience and places it firmly in the sphere of universal human experience. When Milk weeps for his dead lover like Ledger does in ‘Brokeback Mountain’, we don’t really care if it is one man crying for another.
Van Sant wisely focuses his film on the last 6 years or so of Milk’s life for these were the most transformative; we latch on to his story as he is about to discover himself. Those uninitiated with Milk’s story are told at the film’s onset that he was shot along with mayor Moscone by Dan White in 1978. We are then shown Milk recording his story on tape in case he is assassinated and it is from here that his story is presented before us.
Milk’s affair with Scott begins in a New York subway where he picks up the younger man in the casual fashion of popular gay fantasy. However, this soon develops into one of the most meaningful relationships of his life and even after their break-up, Scott and he remained close. They move to Castro in suburban LA where they open a camera shop which gradually becomes a meeting point for activists, gay spokesmen, dissenters, and trade union leaders who want to do something about the incessant police harassment meted out to gays, black minorities and others of their ilk. Assisted by a trusted coterie of followers, Milk mounts a popular campaign for the post of City Supervisor. He stands on a wooden box and delivers fiery speeches which unfailingly begins with the words, “I am Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you”. After three failed attempts, he wins the elections and becomes the nation’s first openly gay public official. It is interesting that he wins the elections in the same year when he recruits lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) to run his campaign. Milk’s coterie has so far been an all-male frat party where the boys “don’t particularly care about girls”.
Once elected to public office Milk starts his fight against the divisive Proposition 6 that ordained the dismissal of gay teachers and their sympathizers from the state’s public schools. In fact, the specter of Prop 6 looms large over the film and without resorting to any theatrics, Van Sant hints at the irreversible damage that Prop 6 can wreck. What was truly frightening for Milk was that it had already been passed in several states like Oregon and Florida. He is pitched against a tide of volatile homophobia represented by singer Anita Bryant and Senator Briggs. Prop 6 is the bulwark against which the entire edifice of persecution rests. It is one of the acts in the ongoing drama of civil rights outrage that saw millions being massacred in Nazi Germany, during Pol Pot’s communist regime in Cambodia and in Mao’s China. It is a warning against irrational intolerance and hatred that demonizes those we don’t understand or even try to; it victimizes those who are unlike us – be they black, gay, muslim, jew or communist.
I can’t say that Milk is my favourite Sean Penn film for I liked him no less in ‘Dead Man Walking’ or ‘Mystic River’. What riveted me to this performance was the effortless kindness, the natural generosity of the man who shared his life and home so openly with every straggler who chanced there, that Penn so successfully communicates. A lesser man or maybe one with more smarts would have known when to end the relationship with the neurotic Jack, but not Milk. Few scenes carry as much punch as when Milk tells a Minnesota teenager over the phone, “You are not sick, you are not bad and God loves you.” Those words and the way Penn delivers them will go a long way in healing many a broken soul. He captures the humour, impishness and flirty charm that must’ve made Milk irresistible. Not once does he go overboard in depicting the effeminate toss of the head or movement of the hand. It is all there and yet never pronounced.
Most of the supporting cast turns in superb performances from Alison Pill who plays Anne Kronenberg, his cheery campaign manager, to Emile Hirsch who plays his protégé and active campaigner Cleve Jones. James Franco as Scott combines pathos and dignity in equal measure. Danny Elfman’s opening music is both moving and haunting. The cinematography by Harris Savides mixes actual archival footage with current shots and this gives the film a sense of history.
Much has been made of Josh Brolin’s Dan White, the deeply conflicted, intense and angry fellow supervisor who shot Milk and Mayor Moscone. Though Milk once says that he suspects White to be a closet gay, “He is one of us”, I don’t think there is enough evidence in the film to conclude that as a trigger for his unhappiness or final actions. White’s motivations could range from simple professional rivalry, jealousy, an unbalanced mind, a seething anger against the outsider and his comeuppance, or mixed feelings about his mundane suburban existence. We don’t really know. It is to Brolin’s credit that he communicates this ambiguity well. He is nervous, hyperactive, fidgety, and simmering with suppressed outrage. It is no irony that the happily married White unable to sleep at night, sits alone naked looking out of the window, while Milk spends the entire night talking to his soul mate Scott over the phone. Nothing brings home the man’s loneliness better than this scene, just like nothing delivers a greater blow to the rosy picture of marital bliss. Perhaps the only place where I found him reverting to stereotype was the scene of his drunken encounter with Milk. The belligerence is all right, as is the underlying resentment, but it all appears a tad like mimicry, like Brolin is aping a drunken man rather than actually playing one.
Van Sant’s latest film is much more accessible than his previous ‘Paranoid Park’. For a man who veers between commercial endeavours like ‘Goodwill Hunting’ and ‘Finding Forrester’ and examinations of disturbed people as in ‘Paranoid Park’ or ‘Last Days’, there is no doubt which category ‘Mik’ belongs to. Perhaps it is a conscious choice for this openly gay director. Perhaps he knew the scope and substance of Milk’s story required the humility of a simple narrative. Whatever it is, Milk is a worthy star in Van Sant’s galaxy.
p.s. earlier published in 4indiawomen