It was partly an accident of history that made Harvey Milk the first openly gay man elected to major public office in this country, so it’s fitting that yet another accident of history has made “Milk,” the earnest biopic about the man, more involving than it would otherwise be.
Milk was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977 -- after several unsuccessful attempts -- because he had solidified his position as “the Mayor of Castro Street,” the voice of the city’s geographically concentrated gay community, at the moment when a change was made from citywide supervisor elections to voting by districts.
Also benefiting from that systemic change was a new supervisor named Dan White, an ex-firefighter voted onto the board to represent an old-school working-class district. Less than a year after these men took office, White assassinated Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and turned a local political squabble into a national tragedy.
The idea of a film on these horrific events has been in the works for more than a dozen years, with directors including Bryan Singer and Oliver Stone expressing interest. The current film, featuring a strong and convincing performance by Sean Penn, was directed by Gus Van Sant in the kind of bland heroic mode that has been a Hollywood staple forever.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with “Milk,” it’s just that its celebration of a culture and a neighborhood, its valentine to the early days of gay rights activism, is mostly more conventional than compelling.
But in one aspect, that accident of timing means that Dustin Lance Black’s script eerily echoes a key issue of the moment in a way that gives “Milk” more relevance and interest than it would have on its own.
Perhaps the defining political fight of Milk’s career was his successful battle against Proposition 6, a statewide measure that would have banned gays from teaching in California public schools. Milk saw this not as an economic issue but a cultural one, a reason for gays to come out of the closet and tell everyone who they are. “They’ll vote for us 2 to 1,” Milk says in the movie, “if they know one of us.”
It’s impossible to see “Milk’s” anti-Prop. 6 demonstrations, to read signs saying things like “Gay rights now” and “Save our human rights,” without thinking of the very current battle over Proposition 8 and its ban of gay marriage. This graphic demonstration that the struggles are far from over gives “Milk” a harder edge than its otherwise self-congratulatory tone could manage.
In fact, in some way the film’s most unexpectedly moving footage is what looks to be authentic newsreel material of police raids on gay bars, with people furtively hiding their faces to protect their closeted lives. This film wants us to understand both how far we’ve come as a society and that it is still not far enough.
Meet the mentor
“Milk” also owes a large debt (which it acknowledges in the closing credits) to the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk.” It goes so far as opening in the same way, with a scene of Milk recording his taped final testament, to be played “only in the event of my death by assassination,” and with newsreel footage of then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announcing the double murders.
“Milk” then flashes back eight years to a meet cute on a New York City subway staircase between a still-closeted Milk and a young and hunky Scott Smith (an excellent James Franco). It’s the eve of his 40th birthday, Milk tells him that night, and he felt he hadn’t done anything to be proud of.
The couple moves to San Francisco, where Milk opens Castro Camera but quickly finds he has a gift for people and organizing. When he does a solid for the Teamsters Union by getting archenemy Coors beer out of the area’s gay bars, his serious political life begins.
Though he ran for office three times before his 1977 supervisor victory, Milk was moving too fast for the somewhat private local gay establishment. He was messianic about people coming out of the closet and told whoever would listen, and even those who wouldn’t, “I’m not a candidate; I’m part of a movement.”
Penn, as we’ve come to expect, is extremely persuasive as someone with a different, more offbeat kind of charisma than many of his previous screen roles.
Franco is a nice match for him as the lover who finally has enough of political life. Emile Hirsch also scores points as one of Milk’s protégés, and Josh Brolin is excellent as always as the enigmatic White, the man who seemed perfectly normal until he didn’t.
It’s a powerful story. Too bad it takes today’s headlines to make it powerful on screen.