American Movie 

Gus Van Sant's Milk celebrates the political skill of a civil rights pioneer.

It is a sad but timely accident that Gus Van Sant's Milk comes out so soon on the heels of the Prop. 8 passage in California, which overturned the rights of same-sex couples to marry. Van Sant's film is a biopic of martyred activist and politician Harvey Milk, who became the country's first openly gay elected official as a San Francisco city supervisor in 1977, only to be assassinated the next year. Among his achievements was leading the fight to defeat Prop. 6, which would have rooted homosexuals from the ranks of California's public schools.

Milk's is a fascinating, pertinent story that hasn't been told loudly enough until now. A 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, won an Oscar but has not been widely seen. That film focused a good deal on the trial and laughable manslaughter verdict of Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone's assassin, Milk's fellow city supervisor Dan White (played here by Josh Brolin).

Van Sant's film, starring Sean Penn and written by Dustin Lance Black, doesn't fixate on White's rationale, though it gives plenty for the audience to speculate about (including Milk's belief that White was a closet case). It dispenses with White's trial in a written postscript. Instead, the focus is on the fact of Milk's life, particularly his public life as a gay activist and elected official.

Milk first shows Milk as a buttoned-down, mostly closeted Wall Street type, until a nervy subway-station meet-cute with gentle hippie Scot (James Franco) pulls Milk into the emerging counterculture. Before Long, Scot and Milk set sail to San Francisco to live together openly.

Seeking to open a camera shop on the city's ostensibly gay-friendly Castro Street, the pair is threatened by another local business owner. Milk's defiant response: "We'll start our own business association!"

From this rallying cry, Milk asserts, a community — and a political career — was built. The Castro Camera Shop becomes a de facto community center as the Castro District evolves into a gay mecca while still meeting mighty community resistance.

The Harvey Milk that emerges from this is more than an energetic community organizer and provocative civil rights leader: He's a shrewd, calculating, hard-nosed politician. And appreciating — even celebrating — this fact gives Van Sant's film both novelty and depth.

After a failed bid for public office, this "Mayor of Castro Street" ("I may have invented the term myself") ditches the ponytail, beard, and denim for a clean-cut look and gray flannel suit and gets serious about winning. He's a man willing to swap votes to get what he wants and craft his own public persona to further his goals, including prompting a near-riot so he can step into the spotlight as mediator and conciliator.

Appropriately then, Milk is Van Sant in mainstream mode. Though it deftly mixes archival footage (Anita Bryant, Diane Feinstein, police raids on gay bars) with its recreations, Milk is closer in style and presentation to something like Van Sant's Good Will Hunting than to his more avant-garde recent fare like Elephant and Last Days. Harvey Milk was a man pushed against societal boundaries, and Van Sant doesn't want his story restricted to an art-house audience.

Milk might be the first mainstream gay film that is openly and aggressively political, but, as such, it's one that fiercely asserts itself at the center of the American story. As Milk takes the stage to deftly yoke American promises from the Declaration of Independence ("all men are created equal") to Ellis Island ("give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free") to the gay rights struggle ("You can't erase those words"), Milk comes into focus as a sweepingly patriotic film — one that, appropriately in the age of Barack Obama, draws no hard line between righteous intent and political pragmatism.


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