Years ago I saw a documentary on television about Harvey Milk. I had never heard about him before, and it all seemed pretty inspirational – and then he gets shot and killed! OMG WTF! It was interesting to see Gus Van Sant's new feature film on Harvey Milk, then, and to remember the stuff the documentary had covered. At the start of this, Milk (played, as you know, by Sean Penn) hooks up with this younger man, and they move out to San Francisco together. As a city, the place is not particularly welcoming to the gays, but they start drifting there in ever increasing numbers, becoming through weight of numbers a considerable local force in the Castro area. Milk becomes increasingly politicised, and starts running for public office, initially on a gay rights and bearded hippy ticket, but increasingly as a serious candidate (signified by him appearing, all clean-shaven and short-haired, in a flash suit).
Although there is stuff here about Milk the man, with nods to his personal life and stuff, this is very much a political film, and you do get this sense of Milk as a master of the political arts. As portrayed in the film, he seems to have had an astonishing knack for coalition building, being able to forge links with groups you would not obviously think likely to rally behind a man for whom homosexual empowerment remained the centre of his agenda. Perhaps the most striking example of this occurs relatively early on, when he pals up with the Teamsters, assisting them in a campaign against Coors.*
The film ramps up a gear when Milk finally manages to get elected to something, becoming a City Supervisor (what I think in Ireland we would call a City Councillor). The election seemed to have thrown up a number of unusual local representatives. One of these was this Dan White chap, an Irish-American former fireman and policeman, played by Josh Brolin. He comes across a bit as the Taxi Driver candidate, making a lot of noises about wanting to get the scum off the street and make SF safe once more families and decent law-abiding people. At the same time, he seems open to political overtures from Milk – who knows, maybe Milk will build another alliance with this guy?
Of course, we know how this ends – White turns out to be a mentalist, murdering Milk and George Moscone, the city's mayor. The film is very good at capturing White's increasingly unhinged state, something I remember as being equally obvious from footage of him in the documentary. It does, though, perhaps make a mis-step when it implies strongly that White was a repressed homosexual, and that his self-directed homophobia was what drove him to kill Milk and Moscone. It seems like a bit of a cliché to say that all homophobes are repressed homosexuals, and I suspect that many homophobes are 100% heterosexual and not even remotely bi-curious. In any case, White does not even seem to be that homophobic, killing Milk more over jealousy that he was getting so much of the limelight (particularly after Milk managed to block a referendum proposal that would have seen homosexuals purged from state employment in California) and through pique at Milk not delivering his vote on some issues of concern to him.
That said, the film has a great scene where a drunken White gatecrashes Milk's birthday party and starts rambling about how he has issues too. If that has any basis in reality then the White=repressed-homosexual thesis has some evidence going for it (though White's issues could just as well have been that he was a mentalist).
This is a great film, with a wonderful sense of time and place, and a great ability to conjure its characters into being. Penn and Brolin deliver excellent performances, as do the various other people who show up here. It has also made me want to visit San Francisco again – it really is such a photogenic city, and it is nice to see a film where you can recognise so much of where the action takes place.
I found myself wondering a couple of things while watching it, though. First of all, I started thinking about what would have happened to Milk had he not been shot – would AIDS have taken him down a couple of years later? For all that you hear a lot about the decimating effect of AIDS on a particular cohort of gay men, I am a bit vague on the actual statistics on what proportion of that particular milieu were killed by it. The film does kind of answer this question, by doing a where-are-they-know bit about the other characters in the film. HIV had not killed anything like as many of them as I had casually expected, so a Milk who survived White would face rough odds that were not unfavourable.
Where he would go then is a very open question. I suspect that his instinct would be to go ever onwards and upwards, running for ever more significant public offices – mayor or state legislature, Senate or House of Representatives, state governor, etc. How far he could actually have taken himself is something I cannot really say, and there may be something to Powell's dictum about all political careers ending in failure. Dying as he did, he remains forever someone who overturned expectations and led a coalition that blocked a reactionary fight-back. Living longer, he may have become just another tawdry politician who started out as an idealistic figure with big ideas.
The other thing I was wondering was whether Milk really was such a great figure. I do not really mean that in the classic Irish begrudger way, but it is striking that you never really get anyone saying anything negative about him (or certainly not anyone from within the gay community). I wonder if anyone there felt that Milk's endless politicking and office-seeking was more about ego-tripping than about advancing the interests of the gay community. I am not saying, of course, that this would be a correct viewpoint, but it is the kind of thing that people say about those who run for every public office that comes up.
[edited to correct Mayor Moscone's first name]
*I can't remember what it is that the Teamster have against Coors, other than that their beer is piss.