On the surface, Milk isn’t a terribly complicated film. Whatever complexity it has is revealed subtly, intermittently. As a description of the final eight years of Harvey Bernard Milk’s life, it’s fairly accurate. The screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black—Mormon-raised and a former writer and producer on the Mormon-themed, critically lauded television series Big Love—pretty much follows the standard biopic formula: subject grapples with self, finds self, becomes a public self, weathers controversy, triumphs personally and/or professionally, and then dies. Black’s attempts to dress up this schema in the gay trappings afforded by his subject do nothing to meaningfully pervert the form—or Milk’s emotional tidiness.
We watch, with varying degrees of interest, as Sean Penn, in the title role, rises from opera-loving, affable San Francisco merchant to be one of the first openly gay politicians elected to public office in the US. Though the film’s emotional trajectory may bear no outward resemblance to, say, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler morphing from playboy to savior, the moral message is essentially the same: the road to redemption is paved by good works.
But Black and Gus Van Sant, who directed Milk, have something Spielberg and his team didn’t: their hero’s martyrdom. On the morning of November 27, 1978, at the age of forty-eight, Harvey Milk was shot and killed a few doors away from his office in San Francisco’s City Hall. The killer—Dan White, a former colleague on the Board of Supervisors—later blamed the crime on intense mood swings that were at least partially due to his habit of consuming large amounts of sugar. (During his trial, White’s claim became known in the press as the “Twinkie Defense.”) Sadly, even this cataclysmic event—one of Milk’s concluding scenes—barely disturbs the homo-lite surface the filmmakers have constructed all along. Instead, the circumstances surrounding Milk’s death become yet another opportunity to exploit a gay cliché.
After White (Josh Brolin) blows a couple of holes in Milk’s hand and chest, the victim starts to fall. As he lands, the camera pulls back and we see what he does: a banner announcing the San Francisco Opera’s production of Tosca. Yes, we understand that Milk was a fan of the opera—a stereotypically gay interest. And that Tosca is about tragically thwarted love—a stereotypically gay theme. But as Milk falls to the ground, his hands flailing in slow motion—reminding us of previous scenes showing him conducting along to his opera records and gesticulating while he talked, both stereotypically gay affectations—we’re reminded of another fluttering pair of hands in another gay-themed, populist-minded movie featuring another heterosexual star: Tom Hanks, as the HIV-infected lawyer in director Jonathan Demme’s 1993 hit, Philadelphia. That film was nominated for five Oscars and won two, including Best Actor for Hanks.
Milk received eight nominations for this year’s awards; among them are Van…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.