dir: Gus Van Sant
You would have thought that the acclaimed documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk would have pretty much covered the story of this incandescently flamboyant political icon of the 1970s. But, let’s be honest: unless someone wins an Academy award and fictionalises the fuck out of a story, we don’t really care.
And why have footage of Harvey Milk playing Harvey Milk in a documentary about himself when you can have Sean Penn overacting all over the place instead?
So much better. To be fair, Penn mostly controls himself and delivers what is a stand-out performance in a career defined by stand-out performances, overacting, having been married to Madonna and beating up paparazzi.
I knew plenty of the details surrounding Milk’s death moreso than his life, because of the hilarious manner in which the person who murdered him used one of the most incredible defences in order to beat the rap and reduce his clearly cold-blooded and premeditated crime to an act of junk food-fuelled manslaughter due to diminished capacity. Of course the truth of what was actually argued by his defence team and what has become the pop culture meme of the “twinkie defence” are two completely different things.
What I didn’t know about the Harvey Milk story was the life story of Harvey himself. And, as far as biopic stuff goes, he seems like he was a pretty amazing man. Two hours is barely enough to do anyone’s life and times justice (though my biopic could be comfortably encompassed within a short film of forty or so seconds), but the director, screenwriters and actors have done a more than decent job of revealing who he was and why he mattered, and the times in which he lived.
This doesn’t devolve into hagiography, nor does it represent Milk as being a gay saint crusader tirelessly sacrificing himself for the rest of the world. In fact, there are numerous instances where Harvey is shown to be an egomaniacal and ruthless political animal, who often placed his own beliefs ahead of the wishes or even well-being of others. Does that make him less likable? Perhaps, but at the very least it makes him seem somewhat more human, less iconic, and less of an Oscarbaiting construct as such.
The overall framing device for the flick is Harvey, at some time presumably before his death, recording a message on a tape recorder which is to be made public if he happens to be assassinated. Awfully prescient, wouldn’t you think? The film uses this flashback prompter in order to represent quickly and easily that prior to moving to San Francisco with his boyfriend Scott (James Franco), Harvey hadn’t done anything of importance or worthy of mention, and he was 40, which, as is well-documented, is 60 in gay years.
If anything, though there’s a hint of self-deprecation in saying such a thing, the film does Harvey a disservice, in that he did a lot of remarkable things prior to moving to California and becoming both the militant face of the gay rights movement and one of America’s first openly gay politicians elected to public office (excluding Abraham Lincoln). They’re not remarkable in and of themselves, but facts like his being a Korean War veteran and a navy diver, and his Jewish and business backgrounds meant that he was more than a gay hippie who decided to get a haircut and a three-piece suit in order to gain office.
And what office, I hear you cry out in desperation for some meaning amidst all this cacophony of banality? District Supervisor! Yes, chalk this up with Barack Obama becoming the first black president as being a marginal, minority-ambitious achievement: Harvey wanted to be in local government!
It must have been for the autocratic power, or the brigades of loyal soldiers that would be his to command, or the flying monkeys and rentboys only a room service call away.
No, it must have been for the $9000 a year paycheck. Why, back in those days you could get a handjob, a cup of coffee and a bagel for thruppence ha’penny, and still had a nickel left over for a ride on the trolley car. What? You mean none of that makes any sense, and that $9000 bucks a year was chicken feed even back then?
So, why else did Milk put himself through the wringer, if there wasn’t monetary gain to be had? Was it for power, perhaps? The Milk represented here is quite ruthless, quite prepared to organise boycotts, threaten businesses and piss off establishment figures to get his way. He was also prepared to out people against their wishes if he felt that it would help “the cause”.
It’s important to separate the “man” from the “cause”, and the “man” from the “times”, because otherwise it’s like you’re saying the guy is a gay Ghandi, of which the popular and wholly inaccurate pop historical impression people have is that without this one person nothing would have happened and the British Empire would still be running India. Maybe that wouldn’t have been an entirely bad thing: maybe all those call centre operators from Mumbai to Mangalore would have more Oxford-y diction and enunciation, and would be better able to fool you with their “Of course sir, I assure you sir I am answering your call from just down the road in Piccadilly Circus”.
Harvey was a product of his community and of his time. Strange things were afoot across America in the wake of the rise of the feminist movement, the civil rights movement and all those goddamn hippies. Conservative, red-blooded and thoroughly bigoted values and legislation were crumbling in the wake of all these waves of angry change, and the gays, who were for so long content to being murdered quite effortlessly in the streets and brutalised by the cops just decided arbitrarily that they weren’t going to put up with it anymore.
Harvey, at least as far as the story is concerned, was part of the vanguard at least, but is shown to be in opposition to it as well, at least on the factional side. The older, wealthier, more established members of the pink mafia first freeze out Harvey because he looks cheap, then they berate him for not going softly, softly enough for their liking. Their desire is for gays and lesbians to quietly slip in to dinner at the human rights table as if they’re ashamed and apologetic about their very existence. They don’t want to scare the normals after all by being too mouthy and loud.
It’s not the path for Harvey and his crew, who strive to give non-violent militancy a good name. There’s a real threat behind much of what Harvey claims in his speeches and protests, no matter how sweet sounding the old yenta might pretend to be. This kitten has claws which the flick and Sean Penn never gloss over. It’s also interesting to watch his political maturation occur over time as defeat follows defeat, and he wonders whether he should just give up.
Surprising as well is the almost even handed manner in which the flick deals with Dan White (Josh Brolin), another San Francisco supervisor who eventually has a slight falling out with Harvey and the mayor of San Fran, George Moscone (Victor Garber). Though Dan is exceedingly uptight, and he does make resentful comments towards Harvey at certain times tied in to the perceived favouritism Harvey enjoys as opposed to the difficulties Dan faces, the film doesn’t demonise him. Sure, he’s clearly a disturbed individual who does a totally fucked up thing, but despite the joke trial, it’s not like this chap went on to glory, fame and riches after what happened.
It’s almost with incredulity that I watch certain elements of the story as it ends up focussing on the crusade by the Christian Right that gains momentum at the time (the late 70s), in their attempts to repeal local ordinances granting protection to gays and lesbians in terms of rents and employment. Of course I’m not blind to the fact that the film clearly parallels those ballot initiatives with the current ones against same-sex marriage that are progressing in virtually the same fashion. The blending of television footage from the time and the scenes shot recently is seamless, which I guess is easy since everything filmed by this cinematographer, Harris Savides, tends to look murky enough to have been filmed thirty years ago. Still, it’s creepy to see how easily Sean Penn and his cohorts meld in with scenes of Anita Bryant talking about how much God hates them gays.
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable flick, even if you could care less about the life, death or times that Harvey Milk enjoyed. Personally, I thought I knew enough about it, but I found it immensely entertaining and engaging. Penn’s performance is flawless, and transcends merely delivering a decent imitation or impression of the man. Sure, he must have studied footage of Milk for hours, but he delivers a sterling performance that is utterly believable. I had no trouble believing Penn was a gentle, vicious, ruthless, sensitive, charismatic and funny thoroughly gay man. As insufferable as his acceptance speech was at the Oscars, and as insufferable as he often is away from the camera, he certainly delivers. The supporting cast as well grapple with their characters and mostly win, with James Franco gives an understated but comfortable support as the love of Harvey’s life. Some of the other minor characters don’t fare as well since they go over the top into drama and drag queen clichés, but it doesn’t detract too much.
The flick, seeing as it’s directed by Gus Van Sant, possibly the gayest director in all of Hollywood, doesn’t shy away from its depiction of the ‘gay’ lifestyle of the 1970s, especially since we all know what and who is lurking around the corner in the 1980s, though, to be accurate, thankfully, it doesn’t wave it around in your face. Nor does it ‘butch’ it up deliberately to make it less ‘gay’ the way Brokeback Mountain did, but that’s another story.
It’s a good flick, and it covers what it needs to cover, in an interesting and enjoyable way. Harvey lived, and he died, and people tried to do stuff twenty year’s ago that looks ludicrous now, which spurred Harvey and activists like him to action. It makes you wonder what idiotic reservations and arguments people are making today that are going to looking utterly retarded in another twenty years. Gay teachers? Yeah, so?
Like that whole women getting the vote thing – who thought that would be a good idea?
8 times the steelworkers of America should keep chasing that rainbow out of 10
“And how are you going to determine who is a homosexual?”
- “My bill outlines procedures for identifying homosexuals.”
“How? Will you be sucking them off?” – well, there’s only one way to really tell, Milk