Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk in 'Milk.' (Focus Features)
“My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you!” That was the rallying cry of America’s first gay civil rights leader.
Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) was the first openly gay man elected to public office. Director Gus Van Sant tells us his story, and it is one of yearning and sin—sin committed by both gay and straight. It is hard to watch “Milk” and not be struck by sinfulness. There is the sin of sexual promiscuity and drug use, but also the sin of intolerance.
Harvey Milk, who sits at his kitchen table with a legal pad and a tape recorder, tells the story. He says the tapes are only to be played if he is assassinated. Then we are taken into the world of a gay man who has the same dreams as a straight man: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Harvey meets Scott Smith (James Franco) on a subway platform in New York City. They exchange what has to be code and end up in bed with each other. They fall in love and want to live in a place where they can exist and not be harassed. They go to San Francisco, where they have heard that homosexuals can live and let live. What they find is a community of people who are beaten regularly by the police department.
Harvey is a Goldwater Republican and believes in the power of the dollar. Organizing a business association gives Harvey the means of helping gay citizens take a stand for their rights. This draws in a group of gay people who work with Harvey to bring about respect and equality for homosexuals. They form alliances with the Teamsters, and the next step is political office.
As Harvey moves into the arena of political power, his relationship with Scott strains. Scott believes someone else can lead the fight, but Harvey is now more than an interchangeable part. He is politically savvy and believes he is needed, even if it means sacrificing a relationship. And Harvey has an eye for those in need. He is drawn to the strays and disenfranchised.
He meets Cleve Jones (Emil Hirsch), a socially connected street hustler who wants to go live in Spain. Harvey supports Cleve and turns him into a leader for the movement.
And then there is Dan White (Josh Brolin). Dan is a former policeman and current fireman. His family is Irish Catholic and native to the city. He sees homosexuals as social deviants and part of city decay. When Dan is elected to supervisor, he is a freshman on the board with Harvey.
Harvey attempts to befriend Dan. He wants to work with him, but Dan demands of Harvey things that Harvey knows will hurt him politically. But Harvey still believes he can reach Dan. The story moves toward its conclusion, and those who remember that time know how it will end.
But something here resonates. The ending may be known, but we are still moved. “Milk” does not attempt to paint Harvey as a Martin Luther King, Jr., but the comparison is there. It also does not want to present us with a hero of the gay rights movement, but that is there as well. So is the humanity.
In one scene, Harvey gets a call, which we are led to believe is commonplace, from a young man. The teenage caller is gay, still living at home. His parents are sending him to some institute to remove his “gayness.” Harvey assures the young man there is nothing wrong with him and tells him to get on a bus and head to a city like San Francisco or Los Angeles. The young man tells Harvey he can’t. When Van Sant pulls back from the close up, we see the young man in a wheelchair. As mentioned, “Milk” is a sin-riddled story.
Van Sant, I believe, is telling us that since we are all fallen, what are we going to do about living together? There are no real saints here. Harvey makes no bones about who he is.
The Christians in the movie—like Anita Bryant, who appears in archival footage—are like crusaders trying to liberate the Holy Land. They are misguided and bigoted.
I have a hard time with this movie. It tells a story that needs to be told, but its culture and mores are far from my own. I cannot help but hear the voices of my past—those who spoke against African Americans—in the voices of those who stand in the movie against homosexuals.
How do I make sense of it? I just remember that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And that coming short is not merely in the hot sins but also in the cold ones: the sins we easily tolerate in the name of “doing right.”
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.
Reviewer’s note: A strong warning to those who are offended by sexuality in the movies.
Director: Gus Van Sant Writer: Dustin Lance Black Cast: Harvey Milk: Sean Penn; Scott Smith: James Franco; Dan White: Josh Brolin; Cleve Jones: Emil Hirsch.