I can’t really be objective about this movie. In my gut I know what Chris Orr is talking about. This is Good Will Hunting Gus Van Sant, not Elephant Gus Van Sant. It’s Hollywoody. It traffics in cliches. The martyr dies (spoiler alert!) in slow motion.
And yet… no, I can’t put fingers to keys and claim I did not start tearing up at the first minute of this movie. As Orr notes, and criticizes, Van Sant begins the film with the same shocking footage that begins The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, the brilliant 1984 documentary. Dianne Feinstein, president of the board of supervisors, informs the press that “Mayor Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot… and killed.” Members of the media scream. “The suspect is supervisor Dan White.”
How can you not choke up at that? As with so many moments in Milk, resisting the emotional tug is like holding still your leg as a doctor raps it with a hammer. It’s mind-boggling that no one has made this movie before, and dramatized the last great civil rights battle of the 20th century, especially when its key figure was as flamboyant and witty and out there as Harvey Milk. The popular film that I can best compare to Milk is Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989), the melodramatic story of Robert Gould Shaw and the first all-black volunteer company. Similar scene-chewing, similar cast-the-guy-who-looks-like-the-guy ethos (you could easily mistake the street mural of Shaw outside my house with Matthew Broderick), similarly functional this-is-what-happened dialogue that the screenwriters leaven with jokes.
I was impressed with how Van Sant resisted making Milk into a saint. The character flaws are there-pettiness, an eye for much younger men. Van Sant frames the film with Milk’s tape recordings, marked “in case,” recorded in the event of his assassination. But he does not use the large chunks of the tapes that eschew rhetoric like “should a bullet enter my brain, let it obliterate every closet door” and instead name and shame Milk’s political foes, the people he demanded not be appointed to fill his supervisor’s seat. Sean Penn’s Milk (and there’s really no criticism to make of Penn’s acting here) is smart and funny, and you want to cry when he’s killed, but he is not sanctified onscreen.
There are two other actors who play ball here. Josh Brolin’s Dan White is perfect, slow-boiling and sociopathic, but with an obvious and unfulfilled need to be liked. Diego Luna gets less screen time as Jack Lira, but he nails the role: it is obvious why Milk’s friends hated Lira, and Milk’s fawning over him bring much-needed distance between us and the martyr-politician. He’s never as flawed as when he’s making excuses for his drunken boy toy. We need to see him flawed like that.
That said, Van Sant makes some easy, lazy choices, perhaps because he cannot understand, or does not want to understand, the cops and social conservatives whom Milk fought against. I don’t think any cop is ever given a name or face. When White gives up his job, he is buttonholed by cops who literally pull him into a room and shut the door. We never hear what they say or who they were. I see the dramatic purpose, but it’s misbegotten–what the cops were doing in San Francisco was dramatic, and involved a war of insults and insubordination to a police chief who demanded they be more gay friendly. And while it would be hard to find as actress to play Anita Bryant–less odious people have been tried by the ICC–hell, Van Sant found a perfect Dan White. The reality of the film suffers, actually, because the news clips keep intruding on the drama.
Ah, sour grapes. I heartily recommend this movie. It’s a melodrama, but so was Milk’s life–yes, the SF opera house was really the last thing he saw as Dan White murdered him, as the police report would tell you. You will cry like your family dog just died, and you will make me feel less ridiculous for my blubbering act in the dark theater.