By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2008)
“The important thing is not that we can live on hope alone, but that life is not worth living without it.” -Harvey Milk
This past Thanksgiving quietly marked the 30th anniversary of one of the more shocking American political assassinations to take place in the latter 20th century. On November 27th, 1978, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and District Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered in their respective offices at City Hall; both men shot repeatedly at point blank range. Even more shocking (and bordering on the downright bizarre) was the fact that their killer was a fellow San Francisco politician-former District Supervisor Dan White.
It’s an anniversary usually given short shrift by the MSM, who apparently have decided that its significance lacks the social impact and historical gravitas of the JFK, RFK and MLK killings, which each receive at least a requisite nod once a year from an appropriately “solemn” news anchor. There’s a new film about the life of Harvey Milk from director Gus Van Sant that may help rectify that.
Milk is one of the more straightforward efforts from the art house filmmaker since his surprise mainstream hit Good Will Hunting back in 1997, yet arguably stands as his most significant work to date. The key word here, as a matter of fact, is “restraint”. Van Sant restrains from allowing his usual overdose of style to obfuscate substance.
Sean Penn plays Milk; the film enters his life journey at age 40, which was when he experienced the epiphany that led to him to dedicate the rest of his life to public service. Using his tiny camera shop in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood as HQ, Milk quickly garnered a reputation as the city’s leading gay activist, thanks to his relentless drive and a natural gift for community organizing.
Beginning in 1973, Milk began the first of three unsuccessful runs for a San Francisco District Supervisor position. His perseverance paid off in 1977, when he won. Although he wasn’t going to wield the political clout of a mayor, governor or senator, his victory was still a milestone in the history of the gay movement in America. His agenda was not limited to gay issues; he also advocated for other traditionally marginalized groups like the elderly, poor and the handicapped.
He entered the national spotlight when he helped spearhead the anti-Proposition 6 campaign in 1978. Also known as the “Briggs initiative”, the proposed legislation would have given California school districts the right to identify and fire gay and lesbian teachers and administrators, and ban any future applicants as well. Milk also became the public counterpoint to singer Anita Bryant, whose strident anti-gay activism became the blueprint for the Religious Right lobbying model that flourishes to this day (unfortunately).
The excellent script (by Dustin Lance Black, one of the writers on HBO’s Big Love) is engaging, yet never strays too far from Milk’s own words and deeds. Most crucial to the success of this film is the powerhouse performance at its heart by Oscar shoo-in Penn, who never falls into caricature; opting instead to essentially channel the wit, passion and genuine humanity of this remarkable individual.
Van Sant actually had a tough act to follow, in the form of one of the most riveting and emotionally resonant documentaries that I have ever seen, The Times of Harvey Milk. Released in 1984 and directed by Rob Epstein, the film deservedly picked up a Best Documentary Oscar. It recounted an incredible real-life tale that was equal parts Greek tragedy, black comedy, political potboiler and film noir.
One of the most compelling elements of Epstein’s film were the snippets of audio from a tape recording Milk had made shortly before his death, which he directed to be released to the public only in the event of his assassination. The sad, funny and insightful auto-biographical musings on that tape resonate beyond a morbid premonition of fate; they crystallize as the dedicated vision of someone who was determined to make a profound difference, and to inspire others to tap into those resources within themselves.
Black transcribes verbatim excerpts from the tape as the framing device for his screenplay. It’s a wise creative choice, because it gives Milk a tragicomic Sunset Boulevard sensibility; even though we know from the get-go how horribly the story will end, it is somehow comforting to have the wry, self-aware “postmortem” narration of the doomed protagonist to accompany us on his journey.
The film abounds with wonderful supporting performances, particularly from Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin (as Supervisor White). Van Sant captures the period flavor of late 70s San Francisco; I can attest to that because I lived there from 1979 to 1981. My girlfriend and I lived in the Sunset district (Irving Street, for you curious locals) but we would head over to the Castro district now and then to catch a matinee at the neighborhood’s iconic architectural landmark, the Castro Theater.
It doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, this film will inspire you, and the continued relevance of the issues it addresses certainly does not need to be spelled out to Digby’s readers. The year isn’t quite over, but this looks like a definite contender for one of my picks for the “top ten” of 2008. In the meantime-run (don’t walk) to see Milk.