Dir. Gus Van Sant
Let’s take a moment to pity the plight of poor Dan White. The former cop and firefighter, elected as a City Supervisor during a year (1978) and in a city (San Francisco) at the fulcrum of a growing grass roots movement (Gay Rights, Equality) that he was ill-equipped to handle, was also saddled with a lantern jaw, beyond-square side-part haircut and an unfortunately apt surname. In other words, the man barely stood a chance.
As portrayed by Josh Brolin (who, fresh off his recent portrayal of G.W.Bush in Oliver Stone’s W., has practically curbed the market on oppressive honkies), in Gus Van Sant’s Harvey Milk bio-pic, White has the doomed countenance of a man who understands too late just what he’s up against. More than just with his elocution and delivery, fellow city supervisor Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the country’s first openly gay elected official, represented hope to all the miserable, oppressed gay/lesbian masses, having to contend with police beatings, brutal assaults and murders, and the repeated attempts of the Christian Right — here, in the form of Anita Bryant — to enact bills denying them equal rights.
Van Sant’s film is a remarkable docu-drama tour de force, weaving together original newsreel footage, still photos and 16mm grainy filmstock with his cast of talented — and understated — actors. It’s both an edgy elegiac for a not-so-far-removed time and an emotionally accessible account of the beginning of a movement, never more necessary than now in the age of California’s Prop 8 bill passing.
The key to the film is Van Sant and Penn never lose sight of the deep humanity of the man they are representing. Milk was, after all, such a powerful figure in no small part precisely because he was so charmingly self-effacing. He put people — gay or straight, believers or firm dissenters — at ease. Rather than turn him into an untouchable paragon of virtue, they show him as disheveled, often goofy, and, in many ways, the exact opposite of pitiful Dan White: Rather than getting crushed by the oncoming wave, he’s happily bodysurfing over it and into shore, giggling manically all the way.
If Van Sant occasionally has a propensity for the artful over the coherent (see Elephant), here he mostly reigns in his artistic libido for something of much stronger substance and effect. Though there are still the occasional flourishes (split screens, murky hand-held footage), he is wise enough, much like Milk himself, to keep his eyes on the prize.