Neither of us knew much of anything about Harvey Milk going into this film, and so watching Milk was as much an education about the accomplishments of the gay rights activist who was murdered in 1978 as it was an opportunity to enjoy an exceedingly well-made movie with big hair and a sweet 70s vibe. The film begins with black-and-white archival footage of gay men being outed and arrested at various restaurants, with newspaper headlines documenting the national temperament against homosexuals in the 60s and 70s. The men lower their faces and turn away from the camera, or hold their hands out to shield themselves. One takes his drink and flings it toward the camera in disgust even as he continues to hide his face. It’s unsettling to watch, partly because it implicates the viewer too and makes us feel we are also responsible for inflicting such shame on these men.
By the end of Gus Van Sant’s deeply humanist movie, the viewer has been restored by watching the candlelight vigil of marchers (which numbered in the tens of thousands) who walked from Castro Street to City Hall on the night of Milk’s and mayor George Moscone’s murder. This was November 27, 1978, just weeks after Milk had successfully campaigned against Proposition 6, or The Briggs Initiative, which would have made firing gay teachers (or even teachers supportive of gay rights) mandatory. Milk’s campaign succeeded largely because he encouraged his constituents and followers to come out, reasoning that people would be less likely to support Prop 6 if they personally knew someone who was gay. Where the film opens with homosexuals being ashamed of themselves, it ends with them embracing their identity.
The film seamlessly blends in historical footage of news broadcasts which accelerate and deepen the narrative rather than distract from it. Watching Dianne Feinstein announce the murders or a very young Tom Brokaw interviewing Anita Bryant anchors the movie in a particular time and place. (Amazingly, this all took place just a week after the Jonestown mass suicide and the death of California representative Leo Ryan. San Francisco was a crazy place in the 70s.) If you, like us, didn’t know who murdered Milk and Moscone, you’ll be surprised by how subtle but believable the killer’s transformation is. Van Sant hints that the killer suffered from his own suppressed homosexual urges. Whether there’s any truth to that or not, it fits nicely into the movie’s motif that embracing one’s identity leads to life, while hiding from it results in shame and death (what Milk called “the conspiracy of silence”).
Sean Penn deserves to win any and all awards people want to throw at him. For such a brooding and tightly coiled actor, he looks like a transformed person as Harvey Milk. He’s spontaneous and cheerful, and when he delivers the famous “Hope Speech” his body is loose and free and he does a weird elbow pump thing. We also have a soft spot for Emile Hirsch, who gets to wear huge glasses and tight pants and acts as though that’s all he’s ever wanted to do with his life.
Christians do not fare so well in Milk, and there’s nothing likable about Anita Bryant’s swift condemnations or John Briggs’s smug condescension toward gays. What struck us was how similar their remarks were to what has come out of the mouths of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in recent years. Milk does not pretend that its protagonist’s victories were decisive ones, only some of the first in what continues to be a long battle. The subject of the Bible and homosexuality is a never-ending debate (see the recent kerfuffle over Newsweek‘s cover story on the Christian case for gay marriage), but while watching Milk we thought of something Marva Dawn once said, which was that of all the groups gay people could turn to for support and understanding, Christians ought to be at the top of the list. She acknowledged, regretfully, that this was not the case in our world today. Milk portrays Harvey Milk as a cheerful warrior, fiercely loyal to his beliefs: a man you’d want on your side. If anyone has a witness in this film, it is him.