Pros: cast, look, editing, Puccini
Cons: too much Cleve Jones's perspective
Being a gay San Franciscan who worked about 30 hours a week in the campaign against Proposition 6 for two and a half months before the 1978 election, while watching "Milk," I was too busy comparing what was on screen to what I know about the characters and times to be able to evaluate the movie as a movie, as a drama. The two actors playing newly elected (in 1977) members of the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco — Sean Penn' as Harvey Milk and Josh Brolin ((No Country for Old Men, W) as Dan White — channel their characters to an astounding degree: the speaking style, the look, etc. And the peculiar relationship between them before White shot Milk and Mayor George Moscone ((Victor Garber, who only vaguely resembles the original) is plausible. The altar boy who enlisted in the US Army in 1965, was a policeman for a while, a fireman for a while, and resigned as supervisor a quarter of the way through his term was indubitably tormented by something, though my theory differs from that of screenwriter (Dustin Lance Black, "Big Love"), as well as from the notorious "twinkie defense" (sugar driving premeditated murder/s).
The movie is (rather conventionally) framed with Milk making a tape to be played only if he was assassinated. Its main message was "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" Going door to door in Contra Costa County in the months before the 1978 election, we all had "We are everywhere, No on 6" buttons and were often the first gay or lesbian person the suburbanite was aware of meeting. (Everyone knows gay people, but not everyone knows that they know gay people was something Milk knew from his own years in the closet.)
It flashes back to Milk meeting Scott Smith (James Franco, "Freaks and Geeks") in a New York subway station on his 40th birthday. They kiss on the subway station stairway. Later that night, Milk tells Smith that he has reached the age of 40 without having done anything of which he was proud. (I think Milk was proud of his service in the US Navy.)
The movie does not indicate that Smith was an actor and that Milk fell in with a hippie theater group or followed Smith to San Francisco. Almost immediately, the two hippies are setting up a camera shop a few doors from the Castro Theater. Rejected by the local business owner organization (the Eureka Valley Merchants' Association, otherwise known as the "Catholic Merchants' Association"), Milk built a gay alternative, the Castro Village Association, and organized some demonstrations of the gay dollar for the EVMA.
The (self-proclaimed) "Mayor of Castro Street" ran for (then citywide) election to the Board of Supervisors twice and for the California State Assembly once before district elections propelled neighborhood candidates (White as well as Milk) onto the board in 1977. As usual, the tectonic-plate shift in San Francisco politics of the 1975 election of George Moscone as mayor (and Richard Hongisto as sheriff) is invisible in the movie. Moscone appointed an unprecedented number of minorities and pushed for district elections, etc.
Milk did not live long enough to accomplish much as a supervisor. his legislative legacy is an anti-discrimination law and the poop-and-scoop law. Milk spent even more time than I did fighting the Briggs Initiative to remove any gay or lesbian teachers or anyone advocating gay rights in California. (Along with my "We Are Everywhere" button, I recall a flyer topped by a pictures and condemnations of Prop. 6 by then ex-governor Ronald Reagan, and future governor (then attorney general) George Deukmijian, both Republicans, as well as Democratic then governor Jerry Brown (now attorney general of California), black then lieutenant governor (now US Congressman) Mervyn Dymally, and black soon-to-be Speaker of the Assembly (and future mayor of San Francisco) Willie Brown. (The botched No-on-8 campaign last year followed neither of these parts of the successful No-on-6 campaign...)
Milk definitely supported the grassroots "We Are Everywhere" campaign and debated State Senator John Briggs up and down the state. From the movie one might think that Milk defeated Briggs single-handedly (though there are indications that both were part of opposed social movements) and had to convince Mayor Moscone to condemn the ballot initiative. (One getting their history from the movie would also not know that there was a gay liberation movement in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as the accommodationist homophiles like (Advocate owner) David Goodstein here! And the historical research for the movie must not have included viewing Rick Stokes et al. in "Word Is Out!".)
Milk was a movement figure. He was also an "opera queen," and seemed to have operatically tormented love affairs. The level-headed Smith was an exception. Although he was very much involved in launching Milk's political career, he tired of the all politics life. Milk tells White that three of his four lovers had attempted to commit suicide, because of the strains of living in the closet. (Smith was an exception in both regards.) After Smith leaves him, Milk takes on a very, very needy and clingy Mexican-American, Jack Lira (played by the less wispy Diego Luna, best known for playing the rich kid in "Y tu mamá también"). The hustler turned community organizer Cleve Jones (another triumph for Emile Hirsch, following on being directed by Sean Penn in "Into the Wild") somewhat fits the taking in stray kitten pattern, too.
The ensemble cast is really, really good. There are some melodramatic flourishes, and I think that Penn comes across more effeminate than Milk did, though showing the wicked sense of humor and the difficulty with his love life seem spot-on. Harvey Milk did not have it all, or at least did not have all at the same time!
The movie seems to me to move from personal life to political vision and movement activities without jolts. (The movie's editor, Elliot Graham, received an Oscar nomination and one from his guild for less flashy cutting than he did for "21".) The primary historical consultant to screenwriter Black (who copped an Oscar) and director Gus Van Sant was Cleve Jones, whose importance is (surprise!) magnified. A viewer with no background would not have any idea that on the tape that frames the movie the person Milk suggested be appointed to his position if he were assassinated was Harry Britt. (I also went door-to-door for his first campaign, BTW. Britt became president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. At the time of the double assassination, Britt was the president of the political organization that renamed itself the Harvey Milk Democratic Club.)
Well, lack of context is the usual problem with biopics of political leaders (elective and/or movement ones). Harvey Milk was an inspirational figure before and aside from being assassinated by a homophobic ex-policeman who was protected by and quite possibly egged on by the Police Officer's Association (unhappy with the police chief, Charles Gaines, Moscone had appointed and with being reined in from roughing up homosexuals). Biopics magnify heroes (Milk and Jones here), minimize support from outside (George Moscone, Carol Ruth Silver, Gordon Lau, and the gay liberation movement here).
I think the movie portrays police hostility and outright persecution accurately. (After tendering his resignation from the Board of Supervisors, White is shown going into the Police Officer's Association, but the movie does not follow him to show what was said that made him request that he be appointed to the position he had resigned, and the movie does not extend to the very dubious handling of his confession, in which he admitted that his plan was also to shoot Carol Ruth Silver and (future mayor) Willie Brown and the botched prosecution of premeditated double murder (which would have been quadruple had Silver and Brown been in City Hall into which White snuck through a window to avoid metal detectors, plus he reloaded his pistol before finding Milk).
Blending in footage from the 1970s, the movie recaptures the late-70s look of the Castro and of many of the real characters (unusually, I think that the Hollywood personnel in many instances are less attractive than their real-life models!). One anachronism that I noticed was an F-Market streetcar. That line did not exist in 1978, though there were green streetcars (going up Market Street and into a tunnel just past Castro Street). Having gone from the East Bay to the San Francisco No-on-8 parties on election night 1978, I heard George Moscone, but don't recall him following Harvey Milk in addressing the celebrating crowd. Also, the polls had shifted, so the trouncing of Proposition 6 was less a surprise than it seems in the movie. And I don't recall there ever being banners on the side of the War Memorial Opera House, across from City Hall, such as the ones Milk sees just before he dies. This seems a relatively short list of "dramatic licenses."
The DVD includes three bonus documentaries (the documentary on which the movie relies so heavily that I wonder how it qualified for the "best original screenplay" Oscar is Rob Epstein's "The Times of Harvey Milk", some of which is literally spliced in). Two have the real-life models for characters in the movie recollecting about working with Harvey Milk (Scott Smith died in 1995 and was not available). The third has actors (including the ones who portrayed Briggs and White) speaking about the real-life models of their characters and the importance of Harvey Milk. All three were very interesting to me — a gay San Franciscan who worked hard to defeat Proposition 6...and worked later on Carol Ruth Silver's City Attorney campaign and Harry Britt's re-election (after completing Harvey Milk's term). Also, Rick Stokes was my attorney before his retirement from legal practice and I donated my tape of Harvey Milk at an American Sociological Association meeting to the local glbt archive. I found both the movie and the bonus features very interesting.
Anyone who thinks about the matter will realize that there are other possible perspectives on Harvey Milk as a person, as a movement leader, and as a politician, but I don't think that the extent to which the movie takes the perspective of Cleve Jones would be as obvious to those without a longer perspective on San Francisco and gay rights movements than Jones has from his few years here. (Conspicuous to me by absence is not only Harry Britt, SIR, and the gay liberation movement in the Bay Area, but the Tavern Guild and how the concentration of bars in the Castro/Upper Market made it a focal point for a bar-oriented subculture. On this, see Nan Boyd's Wide-Open Town.)
© 2009, Stephen O. Murray