Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” has soured with time

Milk Sean Penn in Milk. (Focus Features)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For June, we celebrate the birthday (and the sensitive, insightful eye) of Gus Van Sant. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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Harvey Milk is an iconic figure in the history of gay rights in America. Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he became the first non-incumbent openly gay person in America to be elected to public office. A massive public figure in his time, he represents a broader national shift in attitudes towards gay people, and an increasing political organisation and power of gay groups in America.

After his assassination in November 1978, he’s remembered by many as a martyr and one of the most significant figures in the gay rights movement. With Milk, Gus Van Sant took on the massive task of taking this martyr and making a film out his life. Unfortunately, the result is a film which tells a story forced through the frame of a Hollywood prestige biopic, offering a sanitised and defanged portrayal of queer struggle.

From head to toe, Milk feels desperate for mainstream acceptance. You can see this throughout the somewhat pedestrian filmmaking. For a film that’s meant to be about protest and change, everything feels so safe. With a few exceptions, like when the film is made to look like it’s being shot on a handheld camera, it feels like cinematographer Harris Savides goes for the most obvious shot possible, and the colour palette feels indistinguishable from basically any other film about the ‘70s.

The same goes for Danny Glicker’s costuming. None of this is lacking in competence, but none of it feels risky in a way that would make it interesting—or reflect the transformative nature of Milk that the film wants us to believe in. Instead, everything feels like it has a very specific prestige sheen to it where nothing can be too dirty or rough, which again feels indistinguishable from any other biopic and robs the film of its potential for radicalism. One of the more technically involving areas is Elliot Graham’s editing. We get some fun montages and snappy scene changes, but even this never feels like it has a real impact.

Conversely, Danny Elfman‘s score for the film is uniquely grating. At times, it all feels like it’s trying to bash you over the head with the emotion of the scene rather than give great performances the chance to do the emotional work. At other times, it feels like it’s trying to force a mainstream feel-good vibe onto a much more complex reality. 

For Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black, Harvey Milk (played brilliantly by Sean Penn) is almost messianic, the flaws in his politics are never seriously engaged with. Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) critiques electoralism, calling it “bourgeoise”; this is quickly batted down as childish. But there is a long history of marginalised people critiquing and outright refusing to participate in the politics of a state which hates them, which the film basically sweeps under the rug. This feels especially grating now in the years after the Obama administration, where the election of a Black person didn’t fundamentally change America’s racial dynamics, and change is being forced by protests, not elections.

Later, Scott (James Franco) highlights the hypocrisy and problematic nature of Milk’s drive to get everyone to come out. Again, there has been a wealth of criticism about the centrality of “coming out” in Western gay rights movements, but the film doesn’t engage with it on a serious level. We only get that tiny moment with Scott before we return to Milk being near-perfect. The film doesn’t have to halt for an hour-long debate on the methodology of the movement, but a meaningful engagement with other parts of gay rights/liberation would give Milk a depth it really lacks.

The problem here is also that in their efforts to elevate Milk, Van Sant and Black try to make him the vanguard of universal gay rughts. However, this ignores the work of people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, or the several local activists in San Francisco who were organising for the liberation of queer/trans people of color. It also ignores the crucial fact that Milk’s empowerment is anything but universal.

It may allow for the existence and prominence of the Pete Buttigiegs of the world, but Milk’s ascension doesn’t liberate the Black Queer population of San Francisco from the racialised oppression the film only pays lip service to. It doesn’t liberate people of margianlised genders, whom the film largely ignores, from abuse in male-dominated spaces, both queer and heterosexual.

In trying to make Milk speak for everyone, the film excludes those who don’t fit within a specific and acceptable model of gayness.

The issue of misogyny amongst gay men is brought up with the introduction of Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill), and it’s almost immediately resolved when she “proves her worth” to the the boys. Needless to say, it feels really trite. Milk’s rise also doesn’t liberate working-class rural queer people who don’t have the means and/or desire to move to the big city.

The relationship between queer people and metropolis is complicated; these big cities often (begrudgingly) provide refuge and community for the ostracised—particularly in the time in which Milk takes place. At the same time, there’s an elitism to the idea that queerness doesn’t exist outside of the big city, an idea being challenged by groups like Queer Appalachia. In trying to make Milk speak for everyone, the film excludes those who don’t fit within a specific and acceptable model of gayness.

None of this is to say that a film about Milk wasn’t worthwhile and way overdue. He’s a crucial figure in American queer history who had a real impact on both a symbolic and actual level. That said, the myopic perspective of Milk and its refusal to engage with politics outside of middle-class white gay electoralism makes it frustratingly toothless addition to Van Sant’s filmography, even if it did scoop up a couple of Oscars.

Milk Trailer:

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