01/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Milk , The Biopic and The Lesson

We know what's going to happen almost from the very beginning, because the film tells us: Dianne Feinstein, long before she becomes a Senator, back when she was President of the Board of Supervisors for San Francisco, will speak at a press conference on November 22nd, 1978, and announce that City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man in the United States elected to a major public office, has been shot and killed by former City Supervisor Dan White, along with the Mayor, George Moscone. The crowd moans in shock, disbelief, anger. Cameras flash. This use of archival footage occurs maybe 90 seconds into Gus Van Sant's Milk, and it's followed by a shot of Milk himself (Sean Penn), maybe a week before the shootings, sitting at his kitchen table alone, recording a tape to be played in the event of his assassination. Cue title card.

Milk somehow manages to balance the needs of two very different films in its running time. It is, first of all, an absolutely superb biopic which allows us to feel like we knew Harvey on a first-name basis, helps us to understand what others found so important about him and his work beyond the permanently-earned title of First Openly Gay Office Holder; and a very different film, a meditation on the responsibility activists have to the people who elevated them to position of influence, whether it be via the ballot box, the work of a concerned group of citizens or just the readers of blog community.

Milk, the biopic, is about as good as this genre gets, somehow managing to avoid all of the pitfalls one assumes going in. There is, for instance, no sense of frustration that the film is pretending that we don't know where this is all heading. Van Sant deals quickly with the fact that some of his audience will know going in who Milk was and how he died, and some won't, by addressing the issue right off the bat, letting us know that, yes, by the end of the film he will die, and here's how -- now that we're all on the same page, let's focus on what he did in the years beforehand.

In covering those years, Milk manages to give one a sense of being let into the private world of a very public, extroverted figure, without lionizing him or interpreting every policy move he made as a reflection of personal history. Milk is clearly a good-natured man -- sensitive, with a kind of big-heartedness that is nearly impossible to fake -- but we're not compelled to see him as a perfect man, and we see that most clearly in his relationship with the impulsive, essentially apolitical Scott (James Franco), a relationship that grows strained and is eventually sacrificed as Milk's seemingly quixotic campaigns for public office metamorphosize from quixotic statements of rebellion to gritty, results-driven door-to-door politicking and alliance-building. (After their relationship ends and election is finally achieved, Scott serves as a kind of ghost of Christmas past; in a poignant scene after Milk implores the LGBT staff members of a later campaign to come out to anyone who doesn't know they're gay, Scott quietly reminds Milk of the verbal acrobatics he once demanded to keep Milk's mother unaware of their relationship.)

Nor are we forced to see his activism outside of context, a problem in so many biographical films about movement leaders. We are shown, in viscerally painful detail, a Stonewall-era San Francisco: where police violently raid gay bars and arrest without repercussion; where an eyewitness report by a young gay man of his lover's murder is written off as the ramblings of a prostitute; where everyone has a story to tell of how they got there as a way to escape from somewhere even worse.

While the entire ensemble is pitch-perfect (particularly Josh Brolin in a chilling turn as Milk's political rival and eventual assassin Dan White), it's important to note that Sean Penn as the titular Milk that doesn't feel quite so much like a performance as it does like an embodiment. Penn manages to convey a man whose intrinsic joviality manages to bubble up to the surface despite burdens that would suffocate lesser advocates. When a drunken White mutters under his breath that Milk should be happy that he has "an issue" in LGBT rights to politically exploit, there is a tender pain in Penn's eyes for an instant which feels like a brief letting down of the mask of hard-nosed political activist, that manages without being presentational to tell us what it's like to be the only openly gay public official in the United States.

Of course, much of Milk's work is about creating a future where there can be more than one such official, and that brings us to the second Milk, a deeply heartening reminder, all the more necessary in the aftermath of Proposition 8's passage, that we need to have courage in our convictions if we expect to change people's minds. Throughout the film, we see Milk urging his political peers to not just frame the debate, but push the very parameters of the debate.

More than any major-studio American film I've seen in a long while, Milk takes seriously a politician's stance against the failed war on drugs, in favor of universal health care, and in support of equal rights for all citizens, regardless of gender identity. A montage early in the film of the various issue pamphlets handed out by Milk is treated not as a parade of the wacky excesses of those loony lefties out in ol' San Fran, but as an act of courage. Of course, taking bold progressive stands is easier to do when you're out on the unelected fringes -- which is why it's all the more important that Milk is shown not abandoning his responsibility to advocate as he takes public office, but even further embracing that responsibility.

There are different ways to discuss the limits of our public debate, but perhaps my favorite is the Overton Window, a concept used by conservative academics for years but only recently adapted by progressive thinkers as a strategic tool. The Overton Window is effectively a spectrum of the various degrees of acceptance a policy proposal can receive from the public, a spectrum which, prior to becoming policy, includes:

- Unthinkable
- Radical
- Acceptable
- Sensible
- Popular

... the idea being that by proposing ideas further to the unacceptable end of the spectrum, you make the ideas that were once seen as unacceptable seem more acceptable, and even sensible or popular, by default, and essentially move the "center" in public debate towards you. This happens in right-wing politics all the time, of course, and is familiar to the readers of this site -- in immigration policy, the far-right Tom Tancredos and Jim Gilchrists of the world make the center-right position seem more centrist and resonable by comparision. They understand that the poles of American debate depend on which point we take as an actor on one side or another -- if the right wing stakes out a position formerly understood as radical, the eventual centrist "consensus" is closer to that no-longer-so-radical end.

However, it just about never happens in American progressive politics -- DLC-types squash that attempt, arguing that one needs to tack further and further to the center-right when fighting the right-wing, essentially guaranteeing that the balance of the window shifts further and further to the far-right. Or, to use a more of-the-moment example, President Obama doesn't select a progressive Secretary of Defense, and therefore push the assumed center of the debate further to the left, but instead keeps Robert Gates, and takes another step towards allowing the radical policies of the Bush years to atrophy into acceptable orthodoxies. It happens.

So how amazing it is to see an American film about a progressive activist and office holder declaring that he has a responsibility to play the window for all it's worth, and to see him win for that. (That it's a true story only serves as a reminder that this stuff, well, works.) Perhaps the most crucial scene of the film consists of Milk considering the alternative when fighting Proposition 6, a ballot initiative which would allow teachers to be fired for being gay. He looks over a DLC-style campaign mailer develoepd by the rich, white LGBT leadership elite behind The Advocate magazine, which never uses the word "gay," but instead talks vaguely about human rights and giving everyone an equal shot.

Milk can't quite believe what he's seeing and, after a brief argument, declares "this is shit," throws it in the fire, and decides to fight the battle his own way: proudly arguing for full LGBT rights in public debates with the main proponent of the bill and his cultural warrior Anita Bryant; declaring the necessity for closeted gay teachers to come out of the closet now; and being as visible on the issue as possible, making it clear who's being affected. In other words, proudly espousing the-then radical position, in the hopes of moving the center a little closer towards him. And, even more importantly, convincing a generation of dismissed people that there is nothing wrong or sick with them, that they are entitled to the same rights as anyone else. "You gotta give them hope," he demands to the phantom listener as he records his pre-assassination tape. "You gotta give them hope."

Remind anyone of the bland, whitewashed and ultimately failed No on 8 campaign? The scenes regarding Proposition 6 are, if anything, a bit raw to watch in the aftermath of Proposition 8's passage, but all the more necessary. In a bit of tragic synchronicity, the film has been released just as we see Join The Impact taking the advice we see Milk dispense on screen, to promising results thus far.

There are several small pleasures in Milk: the oh-so-refreshing trust it places in its audience to honestly portray how campaigns work, and to occasionally get even the slightest bit wonky; the evocation of how terrifying it must have been to be in Milk's shoes, consistently getting death threats, often with police apathy (this is communicated most effectively in a Hitchcock-like scene where Milk has no idea who is walking behind him, just that it can't be someone good); the film's persistent sense of humor, gallows and otherwise, in the sometimes dark struggle for equality. These are the pleasures of a film that is made so well, that so thoroughly manages to overcome the standard limitations of the biopic genre, that every aspect of it shines.

If you consider yourself any kind of political actor (and if you blog, you are), you really ought to see Milk -- the fact that it is one of the best films of the year is only a further incentive.