Did You Know There’s a Movie About Harvey Milk Out Today?

What are we supposed to say about Milk, better known as The Most Important Gay Movie of All Time?

We saw it and liked it. It’s not a great film, though Sean Penn’s performance as San Francisco City supervisor and gay-rights advocate Harvey Milk is phenomenal Oscar bait– but that’s also the film’s problem. The screenplay, by Dustin Lance Black, seems written for the Academy. The script channels Knute Rockne: All-American, even down to the heartwarming, inspirational catchphrases. Gus Van Sant directs Penn, Josh Brolin as Milk’s killer Dan White and James Franco and Diego Luna as Milk’s lovers expertly, but with an eye towards making the radical and subversive seem warm and family-friendly.

The problem with the film is that it is so caught up in selling you its message that it never gives your brain an opportunity to think independently about the film. Like the marketing campaign it’s Milk all the time, nonstop, until it’s coming out your nose

The Harvey Milk in this film emerges fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus’ head. He’s out loud and proud from the very first moment of the film, when he picks up a hippie James Franco in the New York subway. Harvey tells his fellow gays and lesbians to “come out, come out wherever you are”, but we never get the opportunity to see Milk’s own leap. We never see the man before he was out, so we never get to understand him after. This isn’t to say that Penn’s portrayal isn’t complex, funny and endearing. It’s just we never really get a sense of his inner life; even his poor choice in lover’s is established only to remind us that Harvey is human, and when they fade from the film without mention, we never really notice.

The film is hagiography, but considering that there’s so few gay heroes in the film cannon (and almost none who are openly gay and happy about it), it seems unfair to criticize Van Sant for making a film that lionizes America’s first prominent openly gay politician. That it’s coming out in the midst of a resurrgence of gay pride and activism is particuarly fortuitous. The film is chock-a-block with hope and warm fuzzies for the gay community, but you walk away from it admiring its craftsmanship more than its content. You want to go and give the cast and crew a warm handshake and say “Job well done!” But had the film really hit its mark, you’d be running out of the theater ready to work for change.

Which brings up the question, “Who is this film for?” While it’s gratifying to see the lives of people who fought for you up on the screen, there’s nothing in the film that isn’t Gay Orthodoxy 101. For a younger generation who never heard of Harvey Milk and for straight people, the film is the most expensive after-school special ever made. The question remains, will straight people go see it? Even laden down with Oscars and carefully rolled out through a “sensitive” marketing campaign by distributor Focus Features (Did you know that Harvey is assassinated? Really!) my sense is that heterosexuals aren’t going to run out to see a film about a gay political figure from the 70s.

For those straight people who go see this movie, what effect will it have on them? Milk is the perfect example of what David Mamet calls, “The Problem Play”. It presents a social “problem” (in this case homophobia) and shows who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and at the end of the film, comfortable middle-class suburban yuppies who’ve gone to see it to seem cultured can look at each other over latte’s and say to themselves, “My what enlightened people we are for being open-minded enough to see this film about a gay guy!”

They can go home satisfied without ever having really had their values challenged. The exotic milieu of counterculture San Francisco and the outrageous hairstyles of the past all serve to place the gay rights struggle as some exotic thing, from another place and another time. Which is a shame since Harvey Milk’s message was just the opposite– that the gay rights struggle is your struggle, that you already know us, that we are part of your lives.

While Milk is an admirable tribute to the man, it will take some as-of-yet-unmade film to really deliver his message.

UPDATE: It turns out we’re not the only gay in the village who isn’t jumping up and down for Milk. Check out Defamer’s Kyle Buchanan and Stu Van Airsdale’s discussion of the film. It seems they had a lot of the same problems with the film as I did. I wish I had seen this first, since I could have linked to it and had you all complain about Defamer being cynical and heartless instead of yours truly. That said, I started off the review by saying I liked the film. I said Sean Penn deserves an Oscar! Just because I don’t love the movie doesn’t make me Dan White!