Martyrs can be messy, but not in this paen to a murdered gay politician.

By Steve Burgess 28 Nov 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture for The Tyee.

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Sean Penn plays the late SF supervisor Harvey Milk.

During a 1999 visit to San Francisco, I read about a controversy involving gay pranksters The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who like to parade in nun's habits. Their planned Easter event was being condemned by the local Catholic archdiocese. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a savvy political tactician, weighed in on the controversy -- squarely on the side of the Sisters. What a great city, I thought. Only in San Francisco would a mayor's political instincts lead him to defy the Catholic Church in favour of gay men dressed like nuns.

But even in San Francisco, getting to that point took some doing. And throughout the 1970s, Harvey Milk was doing plenty. In 1977, the Castro Street businessman-turned-activist would become America's first openly gay elected official when he won a spot on the city's Board of Supervisors. Only a year later, Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone would be murdered at city hall by Dan White, another city supervisor.

For anyone unaware of those tragic facts, already recounted in the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, the preceding is no spoiler. Director Gus Van Sant's new docu-drama reveals them right off the bat before returning to 1970 to tell Milk's story from his move to the West Coast. As in Van Sant's 2003 Colombine-massacre-inspired movie, Elephant, one proceeds through this film dreading the violent catastrophe to come.

But in almost every other way, Milk is as different from the blank, arty Elephant as can be imagined. Milk is surely Van Sant's most mainstream film ever -- a rousing piece of agitprop for gay activism, an upbeat celebration of one man's tireless efforts on behalf of the gay community. In another era, this one could have starred Bing Crosby.

Sean's saintly portrayal

Sean Penn does the title role instead, portraying the former East Coast insurance salesman as loveable, verging on the saintly. Josh Brolin follows his recent star turn as George W. Bush with a fine portrayal of double-murderer White. Perhaps Brolin learned from his No Country for Old Men co-star Javier Bardem that creepy villains get all the career juice.

Milk shows us its hero's good-natured enthusiasm, his support for troubled youth, his tireless political activism. It reminds of us of the thoroughly ugly forces that opposed gay rights in the 1970s, led by sweet-smiling religious bigot Anita Bryant and California State Senator John Briggs. The movie is an uncomplicated celebration of an important and ongoing battle, one that is all the more timely in light of the recent success of the California ballot initiative repealing gay marriage rights.

It is no bold statement to say that the real Harvey Milk was more complicated than this movie lets on. Anyone lacking big, feathery wings would have to be. Watching this film, one would never suspect that the real Milk was described as having a horrible temper. Nor will you find out here that his political allies included the Reverend Jim Jones and the People's Temple. None of which is to diminish Milk or his accomplishments -- far from it. It's merely to say that he was a politician, a relentless self-promoter, badly disorganized, and sometimes by all accounts a pain in the ass. He was a human being. Swept up in the swelling exuberance of Milk, you may well forget that.

The 'twinkie defence'

Harvey Milk's pioneering political status is unquestioned. But his status as a martyr to homophobia is at least debatable. Supervisor White may indeed have been a homophobe -- the evidence is mixed -- but he was certainly an angry man with a grudge. Before hunting down Milk, White first killed Mayor Moscone (who despite his greater political prominence now rests squarely in the "Also Killed" file). The ex-cop and firefighter apparently blamed the two men for his failure to regain his supervisor's position. (White would escape with a manslaughter conviction thanks to the infamous "Twinkie Defense," in which he claimed to have been affected by his junk food diet. Released after five years in prison, White later committed suicide.)

So is Milk a good movie? I'd say no, but it really depends on your definition of good. There's really only one element of the film that struck me as undeniably awful; the references to the opera Tosca, particularly the final one, are shameless and embarrassingly maudlin. Otherwise, though, it's a feel-good experience for any progressive filmgoer. Milk certainly succeeds in its intention to celebrate the life and work of its hero. And it definitely works as a rousing call to action. But if you expect a fact-based biography to offer more nuance and moral complexity than a typical Archie comic, look elsewhere. The cause of gay rights is noble and important. But you don't really need Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn to tell you that.

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