Phil Bray/Focus Features
Although it comes into theaters as “a Gus Van Sant film,” Milk might be seen as the work not of one person but of tens of thousands. The director, however prominent, would count only among the most recent, along with Sean Penn, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and the rest of the present team. Standing behind that group would be Rob Epstein and his crew, who unknowingly contributed to this project by making the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, while farther back in the crowd you’d find the throngs in San Francisco who gave their moral and material support to the title character (and so to the present movie) by flooding into the voting booths and the streets. If you wanted to compile an accurate production history, I suppose you’d have to look still deeper into the past, before Harvey Milk had thought about political office or even moved to California. Start with the gays of his generation who endured routine harassment, humiliation and arrest, and with the Stonewall Inn rioters who rose in revolt.
In fact, Van Sant begins Milk with that very generation. He evokes their lives in a documentary montage of police raids on bygone bars: archival footage full of sudden harsh light, averted faces, tightly packed police wagons and the very occasional defiant glare. This sequence, playing under the opening credits, is the first of the film’s many declarations that Milk is about a movement, not a man–despite the one-character title, the auteurist credit line and the Oscar-friendly star performance.
Narrated in voiceover by its lightly fictionalized protagonist, who in a frame sequence records his political testament on the eve of his assassination, Milk seems less like a biopic than a fast-moving course in community organizing. You learn little about Harvey Milk’s life before age 40 (as if he’d sprung into being fully formed in 1970, in the wake of Stonewall); but there’s plenty of information about consumer boycotts, citizen patrols, leafleting, redistricting, choosing strategic issues and negotiating quid pro quos. These topics play out in scenes that usually bustle with multiple characters–five or six in Milk’s camera shop/political headquarters, hundreds at debates and meetings, thousands at demonstrations–but that are also models of narrative efficiency, since the screenplay never introduces a plot point without following it immediately with another. Has Harvey just been told that his speeches are grim and off-putting? Then at once he’s walking along a darkened street, feeling endangered, only to reach home and find an important new ally waiting for him. Has Harvey just received the first newspaper endorsement of his career? Then at once a sweet, lost young man stumbles by–just his type!–and becomes the new love of his life.
Milk does have its moments of domestic intimacy between Harvey and his poor, doomed lover Jack Lira (Diego Luna), just as there are two-character scenes featuring Harvey’s earlier and much stronger partner Scott Smith (James Franco, who is smashing in 1970s Brillo hair and skintight jeans). But it’s remarkable how the film mutes even the most terrible personal crises in Harvey’s life–this, for a man who adored opera and is repeatedly linked in the film with Tosca–or else registers them and then quickly passes on to the next ballot initiative. The intention, perhaps, is to suggest how Harvey, like Tosca herself, would coolly and consistently master his feelings in the necessary service of projecting an image, whether by getting a haircut and putting on a cheap suit (so as not to alarm the straights) or by ignoring a death threat that had just been placed in his hands (so as to get up before an audience and rally their spirits). “Politics is theater,” Harvey advises Scott early in the film; later he demonstrates the same principle to his aide Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) by dancing up the grand staircase at City Hall. In most good stories about the theater, though, the private life contradicts the public role; whereas in Milk, the backstage Harvey is never less than the character he plays before the world–brave, witty, dedicated, genial and honest. Is the result hagiographic? No. Monochromatic? A little.