Inspired by the film itself, but also by the perspectives that were raised in response to my review, I rewatched Milk last night, and I still love it. While I’m not going repeat all the points I made the first time around, I do want to expand on a couple of them.
I feel the need to clarify what I meant when I said that “Milk is not so much political in a narrow sense as it is humane, not so much polemical as it is probing.” It’s one thing that I don’t necessarily see the harm in a film being political (and this doesn’t only apply to documentaries), but they should never be propagandistic, and even though some conservatives might be angered by it’s message, it’s impossible to write Milk off as a message movie.
Among other things, this has to do with the difference between politics and policy. Both are indispensable parts of the story of Harvey Milk. The policies he championed explain what made him a rallying point for an entire political movement, while his politics tell the story of how he got things done. It’s neither possible nor particularlu productive to separate the two terms completely, but what I tried to say in my initial review was that both perspectives are crucial to understanding Harvey Milk, and that they also are a big reason why the movie’s portrayal of him feels sufficiently nuanced.
This is evident immediately after both Milk and supervisor Dan White are elected. Milk knows that he can get the gay rights bill through the Board anyway, but he really wants White’s support. In a perhaps fitting analogy, let’s take President Obama’s economic stimulus bill. He knew that he could get it through the House of Representatives on a party line vote, but he still tried to sugar the pill for moderate Republicans, because of the symbolic value of a bipartisan compromise and a broad majority. As it turned out, not a single House Republican said yes, and only three Senate Republicans crossed over, but to Obama it was still worth a try. Milk’s approach seems practically the same. At the same time however, Milk came under pressure to go back on his word to White to review the location of a psychiatric center in his district. This very real political dilemma then marks the starting point for an increasingly tense relationship between Milk and White.
The fact that Harvey had a clear understanding of the importance of perception in politics, doesn’t mean he wasn’t also an idealist. He was well aware that a controversial movement like his had to be built around a charismatic leader, and while he happened to be that leader, the message he sent was never just about him. Still, it’s hard to imagine the movement had gained such a strength if Milk had not been such a powerful public speaker. Rhetorically, Milk may most closely resemble Barack Obama, but the way Sean Penn plays him, I thought more of Mario Cuomo, the Democratic former mayor of New York. Penn too is a great public speaker, and when he (as Milk) spoke about how ‘you gotta give hope’ to ‘the youngsters in Minnesota and in Jackson, in Richmond’, I (again) had to rewatch Cuomo’s magnificent ‘Tale of Two Cities’ Keyonote Adress to the otherwise terribly unsuccessful 1984 Democratic National Convention. Like Cuomo and Obama after him, Harvey Milk believed in words as a first step to action, and the speech scenes are some of the best in the movie. Also, the way Harvey self-conciously positions himself as a leader of the protest against anti-gay ballot measures around the country (‘Now you go out there and speak to them’, he says to Emile Hirsch’s Cleve Jones, ‘then San Francisco’s only gay supervisor gets out and saves the day [quoted from memory]), tells us that you cannot get anywhere without a combination of conviction, self-esteem and a keen understanding of the theatrics of politics. Because it makes him easier to understand as a politician, he at the same time becomes more complex, and thus more relatable.
But that’s enough politics. Let’s instead turn our attention to other, less serious aspects of the movie. Like, say, gay kissing. Franz and Bryan both remarked how awkward they felt about the first kisses between Sean Penn and James Franco. In my initial post I said I was impressed about how comfortable everybody seemed about playing gay, and for me this included the kissing scenes. The second kiss (the cake-in-bed-kiss, if you will) was somewhat abruptly cut, but other than that I have to say that the affection between Scott and Harvey seemed unforced and sincere.
That said, I too was in a quick state of ‘Whoa, look, two straight guys are kissing (and that’s really Sean Penn up there)‘ shock at first, if only because these things are so rare in (fairly) mainstream movies. I’m a little ashamed to admit, but however gay I may be, and however much I try to distance myself from it, my first reaction was shaped by the continuing spell of heteronormativity. No matter how much I felt that their kisses passed my gut level test, another part of me wondered whether it would be as awkward for a straight audience to see a gay actor do straight kissing, than to see straight actors share a passionate gay kiss. I’m not sure, but I’m don’t like to ask, because when I listened to hear if the kisses got some insecure giggles or expressions of discomfort from the audience, I couldn’t here any.
Finally, I just have to go back briefly to my growing Emile Hirsch obsession. Of course he was just as adorable the second time around, but I particularly noticed the scene at Harvey’s campaign office/camera shop the night before he lost his third race. Back in December, I named Hirsch the frontrunner among the Young Leonardos, and while my main point was that he had the talent to take the roles that Leonardo DiCaprio is now too old to take, I also think he has a slight resemblance with Leo both physically and acting-wise. Watch the scene closely (‘There were fucking riots!“), and see if you can’t find a little bit of Leo (from his This Boy’s Life, Basketball Diaries days) in him. Hirsch is a really good gay, and depending on how you label Duncan Mudge in The Mudge Boy and Tim Travis in Imaginary Heroes (there’s a kiss), Milk is his third turn in the queer corner. To me, he might as well stay there.