Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” isn’t a great film. I’d say it’s a good film overall, pleasant enough to watch, and I’d certainly recommend it to anybody who’s sympathetic to, and interested in, the history of gay rights. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much everyone I know.
The film draws its source material from some fascinating historical events, and the acting is solid all around. Josh Brolin in particular is amazing as Dan White, who serves in San Francisco city government with Milk and eventually kills him and the Mayor. As portrayed by Brolin, White comes off less as a conservative ideologue than as a man who is deeply ill at ease with himself. His awkward failures at reaching out to Milk and others only leave him isolated, both politically and emotionally, which I find makes the murders fit awkwardly into a straight political narrative. Because Harvey Milk, it would appear, wasn’t so much assassinated for political reasons as he was killed by someone who was in over his head, went crazy, and had access to a gun. I’m not sure you can call it an anti-gay murder any more than you could call the Columbine murders pro-goth.
Anyway, what I find disappointing about “Milk” is that it’s a fairly straight political biopic, and generally speaking those aren’t very good. We’re shown lots of scenes of what it was like to be inside of the movement, to hang out at Milk’s photography store in the Castro. But political narratives can easily get bogged down in parliamentary maneuvers and color-coded maps, which don’t often give you the narrative oomph you need to drive a story along. There’s a lot of talk about liberty and equality, but what does it all mean, in human terms?
Later I found myself thinking about Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi”, which stretches out to three hours—I remember going out for intermission, back when theaters used to have those. I last watched it a few years ago on DVD, and if memory serves, the film uses a lot of that extra time to touch on the difficulties of ordinary Indians living through a tumultuous time. Yes, there are inspiring speeches, but there is also the suffering of relative unknowns, like the Indian who comes to Gandhi after the vicious struggle of Partition, stricken with grief and guilt that he killed a Muslim child with his bare hands.
“Gandhi” is an epic in the best sense of the word, and maybe “Milk” could have been one too. Considering that the film deals with the first decade after the Stonewall riots, I don’t think “epic” is an excessive term. A generation of queers started to shake off every idea of being sick or doomed or sinful, and slowly, fitfully, began to reach for happiness—the pursuit of which, don’t forget, is written into this country’s founding document.
Unfortunately, “Milk” seems hurried and a bit blindered, skipping opportunities to explore the difficulties of being gay in the early ‘70s. Harvey convinces an organizer to come out to his father, but that phone call takes place off-screen. A handicapped gay kid in Minnesota is sent off to an institution and eventually escapes, by we see that story told only in brief, tempting glimpses. These experiences are why gay rights matter, and Harvey ends up making this argument within the film itself, complaining about a flyer made by some allies that tries to defend gay employment rights without mentioning gay people. But the film itself, perhaps hemmed in by a commercially acceptable running time, and maybe Van Sant’s awe of his subject, doesn’t seem to believe it. We could’ve used more of the movement, and less of the man.
That probably didn’t matter much to those who were seeing the film with me, a crowd of gay and straight New Yorkers who were most likely shocked by the passage of Proposition 8 last month, and who cheered and gasped at all the right moments. They had been demoralized by the defeat in California, and they came to feel renewed in their beliefs. Fair enough. For them, the shorthand wasn’t much of a problem because they (like myself) can be assumed to know a lot about the struggle for gay rights before entering the theater.
But I wonder if that’s part of the same mistake that much of the anti-Proposition 8 campaign was making, trying to defend the rights of gays to marry without actually showing gay people in love. Most of those who voted for Prop 8 were bigots out of laziness, not out of principle. They don’t know many gay people, so they aren’t going to take the time to wrestle with the difficulty of the question. It seems to me that with enough open discussion—keeping in mind that such discussion will be arduous and frustrating and occasionally dangerous—many of those people can be convinced to get over their discomforts and give their gay friends and co-workers the right of civil marriage.
In the meantime, we also could’ve used a reminder of how rapidly this country is moving in the right direction in regards to gay rights. Yes, last November a bunch of bigots teamed up with a bunch of confused people, and they voted to deny marriage equality in the state of California. But as big as that is, it’s actually quite small, just a hiccup really. Thirty years ago, you could lose your job or your family or your life for telling anybody at all that you were queer. Today, all of those dangers are diminished significantly, and that momentum is still there. Marriage equality will come, and it will come soon. Not soon enough, but soon nonetheless.