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Movie Review: Milk

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Philosopher George Santayana famously wrote that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Unfortunately, even those who do remember the past may also be condemned to repeat it. So I was reminded while watching Milk, the new Gus Van Sant biopic about pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk, who became a San Francisco Supervisor (essentially, a City Council member) in January 1978, only to be assassinated less than 11 months later.

What triggered my musing was this: Just as Milk fought the anti-gay Prop 6 thirty years ago, so too did California gay activists fight the anti gay-marriage Prop 8 this year, albeit less successfully. Milk and the 1978 gay community won; the 2008 gay community didn't. The film couldn't be more timely.

Milk's story proper begins when Milk (Sean Penn, in a transformative portrayal) was a New York City insurance executive, closeted and clean-cut. He picks up a hottie on the steps down to the subway, Scott Smith (played with flirtatious charm by another hottie, James Franco). Smith moves in with Milk and, in short order, they pick up stakes and move to San Francisco, where Milk promptly goes native, growing his hair long and adding a scruffy beard and moustache. He opens a camera shop in the gay district soon to be known as the Castro, and before long becomes a gay activist.

One failing of the otherwise interesting film is that it never gives any insight into the reason behind Milk's rapid career change from insurance to gay insurgency. It's not too much of a stretch to say that Milk was born again--an analogy that will probably annoy the right-wingers, and let them howl as far as I'm concerned. To say that Milk's transformation accompanied his coming out is to explain little: which was cause, and which was effect? And why do some people who come out turn into activists when most do not? The film sheds no light on these questions, whose answers are the engine that powered Milk as he became the first openly gay man (and only the second gay person) in the entire country to be elected to a meaningful public office.

Alas, his victory was short lived. For those who don't already know the outcome, the film begins with archival footage of a stricken Diane Feinstein, then president of the Board of Supervisors, later mayor and now senator, announcing the assassination of Milk and liberal Mayor George Moscone. Excised from the clip is Feinstein's next sentence, in which she announces the suspected assassin. Framing the film is voiceover from Milk as he records a tape to be played in the event of his own violent death. To be an openly gay politician in 1977 was to be a target, and Milk received many death threats.

As the film shows, Milk was charismatic, but even had he not been, he was nothing if not tenacious. He ran for office four times, always without the support of the city's gay establishment, which thought his street-activist populism too disruptive and untamed. The election he won was his last--he twice ran unsuccessfully for supervisor in citywide elections, then unsuccessfully for state assembly, then finally prevailed as supervisor when the city established a system of district elections in order to more equitably represent various ethnic and other groups. Geography is destiny: the same change in Boston led to the election of an openly gay city councilor in that city just a few years later, and the concentration of gay people in West Hollywood led to its incorporation in the mid-1980's as the first city with a gay majority on the city council.

The movie, like many biopics, recounts its subject's life (or, here, the last eight years of it) as a sequence of occurrences, one after another, without a strong sense of story arc. People and events don't feel as though they're moving towards any sort of climax. This is a common problem with biopics; after all, real life is generally just one damn thing after another, as the saying goes, without narrative cohesion. Van Sant tells his story in a conventional style, without the experimentalism that marks some of his films. The film is marked by vivid acting and fine technical credits.

Any story needs conflict, and any hero--Milk, notwithstanding a certain fey nebbishness, is a hero--needs an antagonist. SPOILER ALERT. Milk's nemesis doesn't appear until the final third of the film, in the form of fellow candidate and, then, supervisor, Dan White (a chilling Josh Brolin). White is by turns cold, then needy, then infuriated, but always seems emotionally empty. He commits his crime with cold calculation, which makes all the more bitter the revelation (in a "where are they now" sequence during the credits) that he received but a slap on the wrist for a double homicide. His ultimate fate, though, served justice in a perhaps unintended way. END OF SPOILER

Milk's violent death, after seeing his joie de vivre, is heartbreaking, and the candlelight march in his honor that followed left much of the press screening audience in tears. The march once again reminded me of the post-election marches against Prop 8, both of them constituting protests against public cruelty targeted at a still disfavored minority. As Faulkner once said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Running time: 128 mins. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. Opened Nov. 26 (NY, LA, San Francisco). In general release December 5.