Gus Van Sant, Milk, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 128 minutes. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and Jack Lira (Diego Luna).


Milk, a biopic of the first openly gay man elected to an important political office in the United States, opens on Wednesday, a day short of the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of its protagonist, Harvey Milk. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the movie is an elegantly constructed, emotionally volatile piece of storytelling, which combines agitprop how-to with classic tragedy: It begins with the death of the hero foretold and ends with a proper mix of pity, terror, and catharsis—the whole schmear, as Harvey might have said. At its center is the most life-embracing performance Sean Penn has given since his irresistible, star-making turn as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

The film opens with a collage of newsreel footage of police raids on gay bars and clubs beginning in the late 1950s and ending with the 1969 Stonewall riots. We then see Harvey Milk (Penn), alone in his Castro Street apartment in 1978, making a cassette-tape recording of his last will and testament—to be played only in the event of his assassination. Cut to more newsreel footage—this time of Dianne Feinstein, Milk’s colleague on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, tearfully announcing that Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk have been shot dead by another supervisor, Dan White. Flashback to New York in 1970, where Harvey, on the cusp of his fortieth birthday, picks up a much younger man, Scott Smith (James Franco), and overwhelming Smith with a combination of self-mocking wit and sexual hunger, locks lips with him in tight close-up. In an instant, we are disobliged of any prurient expectations that somewhere in the course of this movie we will be treated to the spectacle of a reputedly heterosexual star engaging in hanky-panky with another man. Milk is matter-of-factly gay from start to finish, as is Penn’s performance. And if there’s no fuss, there’s also, perhaps, too little muss. Indeed, I had to ask a friend who was part of the scene around Harvey’s Castro Street camera store (lovingly re-created for the film in its original location) whether Harvey might have sublimated his libido almost entirely into politics or whether the young men who became part of his grassroots political team and alternative family were quite as chaste in their flirtations as they appear on-screen. After he finished laughing, he reaffirmed that the Castro in the ’70s was specifically about sexual liberation, rather than a polite quest for civil liberties.

I can understand how one might see Van Sant’s barely carnal representation as a cop-out, but since I’m not keen on seeing people fucking their brains out on screen, I really didn’t mind. Rather, I chalked it up both to sensibility (Van Sant’s movies are modest even when they’re most desirous) and to a political strategy akin to Harvey’s, when he cut his hair and donned a suit before beginning his campaign for public office. The conventional packaging is intended to disarm the straight world, making it more hospitable to a militantly gay message. Speaking to the San Francisco Teamsters, whose union representative became a loyal Milk supporter after Harvey organized a Coors boycott in the Castro, he begins with his signature line, “I’m Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you”—thus embracing the verb used by homophobes to incite panic, as in “They want to recruit your children.” He then quips, “I’m sorry I left my high heels at home.” For Milk, coming out was an absolute necessity—the key to personal strength and political power—and the film makes that point repeatedly. He was forty when he came out, inspired by the Stonewall movement, and he believed that his life truly began at that point.

Left and right: Gus Van Sant, Milk, 2008, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 128 minutes. Left: Dan White (Josh Brolin) and Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). Right: Harvey Milk (Sean Penn).


Penn burrows inside his character, capturing not only Milk’s Long Island Jewish intonations and his gay body language but also the intensity of his beliefs and the particular mix of fear and desire through which he viewed the world. He carries the film in the same way that Milk shouldered the fight for gay rights in the Castro. Van Sant loves his actors—he gives them the time and space to breathe on the screen—and the ensemble cast is so vivid and true to one’s memory of the period that it seems unfair to single anyone out, but the warmth and wicked humor that Emile Hirsch brings to Cleve Jones (Milk’s young activist protégé) is particularly memorable, as is the combustible mixture of confusion, resentment, and repressed rage in Josh Brolin’s Dan White. With his sideburns and hair swept diagonally across his forehead, Brolin looks more like Van Sant than he does the real-life murderer of Milk and Moscone. Someone was being very perverse.

Dustin Lance Black’s exceptionally well-researched script (Jones was an important source, as was Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk) homes in on Milk’s years in the Castro (1972–78), racing through his first three losing campaigns and his victorious one in 1977, then ratcheting up the intensity when Anita Bryant’s anti-gay-rights “orange juice” bandwagon comes to California in the form of Proposition 6, a ballot initiative that sought to ban homosexuals and their supporters from teaching in public schools. In his militant struggle against Prop 6, Harvey secures his place in the history of the civil rights movement, and the film finds its most intense moments of political drama.

When asked what he would do if Prop 6 succeeded, Harvey responds, “Fight in the streets.” The film, thus, supplies opponents of Prop 8, California’s 2008 anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative, with a clear answer to the question “What would Harvey have done if he had failed at the ballot box as we did?” Indeed, Milk has such resonance with contemporary politics—the final words of Harvey’s testament are “You’ve got to give them hope”—that its strengths as a work of art are nearly upstaged by its topicality. But thanks to the fluidity of Harris Savides’s camerawork, the images have surprising vivacity throughout. Similarly, the work of another Van Sant regular, sound designer Leslie Shatz, while not as conspicuous as in the director’s more formalist films such as Paranoid Park and Elephant, adds a nearly subliminal emotional coloration.

In the final scenes, Van Sant moves from the conventions of realism to a register that is both more emotive and more abstract. Harvey’s face, shown in lingering close-up as he sits alone at the back of the San Francisco Opera, gripped by the finale of Puccini’s Tosca, is a tragic mask. Dan White’s murder of Mayor Moscone, his walk—as the camera tracks behind him and then in front of him—down the long corridor between the mayor’s office and the room where an unsuspecting Harvey is engaging in morning chitchat, and his shooting of Harvey at point-blank range replay the horror of Elephant in a world of adults. The film ends with a candlelight vigil the night after the murders, in which thirty thousand people walked from the Castro to the steps of City Hall. Just as some have argued that the film’s depiction of gay sex should have been more explicit, others have criticized Milk for not including the White Night Riots, the furious reaction that followed Dan White’s sentencing. (He got off with seven years.) I prefer the formally satisfying catharsis of a candlelight vigil. The facts about White and the riots are duly noted in the end titles. The fighting is better left for the streets.

Amy Taubin