Gus Van Sant's "Milk" is an amazing movie, and in numerous ways.
The story of Harvey Milk, the "mayor of Castro Street" and icon to the gay rights movement, is not an easy one to put on film (though two directors are trying: Bryan Singer being the other). The story is inherently incendiary, controversial, and potentially maudlin. And Van Sant is a director more known for cool idiosyncratic mood pieces and than hot political protest. So maybe this wonderful film is just the perfect blend of the right material in the hands of the right artist. It certainly is different - and more powerful - than anything Van Sant has done before.
It's hard to take issue with any of Van Sant's choices in the film: from the opening establishment of Harvey finding his first true love in New York's pre-sixties Bohemia, to the cast of characters he assembles around him as he decides to run - five times in a row - to eventually become the Casto's first openly gay elected official in the country, to his machinations on the San Francisco city board and his ultimate unfortunate run in with a too-tightly-wound Dan White. Even the music complements the story perfectly. What Van Sant decides to film here is not just a man's story, but a time and place: the Castro in the sixties, and the energy, excitement, fear, and of a group of people just coming out, just realizing not only who they were but what they could make of their lives, individually and together, and recognizing within each other the makings of an entire community. By the time Harvey utters those inevitable words to the mayor, "imagine that...a gay man with power," you understand how amazing it was for him to have gotten as far as he did.
Needless to say, Van Sant's luck in creating such a success hinges in no small part on Sean Penn's performance. Penn not only disappears behind the character of Harvey Milk, he opens you up to the wonderment and pure joy with which Harvey approached the world. By the time Harvey debates John Briggs - turning the tide of California's anti-gay Proposition 6 from certain passage to a narrow defeat - you realize that so much of what he accomplished hinged on his infectious openness, warmth and humor.
It was this very openness, Van Sant suggests, that discombobulated the classically repressed and resentful Dan White, and finally drove him to murderous rage. But the same openness is what made Harvey an instantly beloved hero, more so than the mere symbolism of his accomplishments.
Milk is the second fully mature gay-themed movie delivered by a Hollywood director at the top of his game. The first, Brokeback Mountain, became a box-office sensation because of its love story, sex-appeal, and cross-over marketing to the ladies. Milk, on the other hand, seems to have little sex-appeal, even less cross-over appeal, and is likely to not reach the same stratospheric heights of cultural relevance. But it is, in the end, the better movie. Brokeback - a movie written, directed, and acted by an almost entirely straight cast - paints the gay experience as an exquisite tragedy. Milk, coming from a completely different sensibility, finds not just honor but meaning in tragedy, and in the end, leaves you feeling not sad, but inspired.
What's hard to believe is that both movies largely take place at the same historical epoch, even if they seem to be coming from vastly different worlds. If Harvey had been out on that ranch with Jack and Ennis, he'd have ended up owning Brokeback mountain, freeing all the sheep, and turning the place into a gay b-and-b, and Jack and Ennis would have been having him over every week for Sunday brunch. And while both movies end with someone dying, in Harvey's death, the world takes notice, and changes.
In terms of how to live their lives, then, Jack and Ennis made their choices, and Harvey made his. And those choices couldn't have been more different. "Milk" does a first-rate job in explaining why Harvey's choices were not only the more brave, but the more romantic as well. While we might have a beautiful cry at Brokeback's story, we have something even more powerful in "Milk": a reason to change the world.