I wonder what I would think of Milk if I weren't gay. Probably not very much, actually. I'm cynical enough to dislike pop culture that aligns with my ideals if the outcome is muddled or overly broad (like Crash or Maya Angelou's poetry or PETA). That's assuming I'd be a compassionate straight (which I probably would) and that Milk is muddled or overly broad (which it is, in the case of the latter description). But as a gay man, someone or thing that accepts me and my innateness to the point of celebration is irresistible. So of course I was enthralled by Milk. I was amazed by the surreal scenes of mass protest. I was angered by the anti-Milk monster homophobes. I was crushed at the assassination of Harvey Milk, even though I knew it was coming. This isn't just a like-minds thing; it's a love thing.
It's hard enough to use your head in a situation that speaks to your heart. Add homosexuality to the equation and it's 5,000 times harder, since (at least in my experience) self-acceptance means conditioning yourself to a life of trusting your heart above all things. You can wrap yourself up in philosophizing about nature versus nurture or the implications of not being inclined to advance your DNA or the worth of society's collective moralizing but all of that is irrelevant because love is love is love and love conquers all and all you need is love. (You want evidence of a shared human condition? Find it in cliches, which know no bounds of sexual orientation.) That's it and that's that and that's enough and that's for no one to even question. Hypocritical as it may ultimately be, I believe that "everyone's entitled to their opinion," less and less everyday. My humanity depends on a hard line, a black and white, a wrong world view (them) and a right (us). Since I don't think anyone should be, you know, exterminated for their beliefs or even the resulting actions (though it would solve many problems quickly!), the most I'll concede is that everyone's entitled to be wrong.
The wrongs won't have much use for Milk, as it makes no clear-cut, bullet-pointed argument for the tolerance of gays. It's all suggested by just attempting to show people as they are, by letting the audience see working examples of real lives whose loves and struggles don't deviate from the human condition. Instead of dictating, the movie questions: If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If you prick us, do we not ask for more? (OK, slight deviation.) Though this may make it ultimately an exercise in preaching to a choir, it's also what I like most about it.
It's a nice injection of subtlety into a movie that is broader than the back of a football player. (Mmmm, football players.) Since it would be a little too campy for today's gays to put a big "M" on Sean Penn's chest, writer Dustin Lance Black shoves enough catchphrases in his mouth to suggest an orgy of comic-strip proportions. "Politics is theater!" "The movement is the candidate!" "A homosexual with power: that's scary!" are just a few of dozens of platitudes that our hero spits out (forgive me for not taking down more -- I didn't realize how much they bothered me until he said the last one with like 10 minutes left in the movie, which was ridiculous enough to finally snap me out of my empathy trance). And I'm not even talking about his speech language, which is inherently broad.
...Or, actually, maybe I am talking about that. See, Milk's Milk never stops stumping, which is why Sean Penn's performance is so amazing, as he feels delightfully, giddily and wholly human in the midst of the unshakable feeling of dialogue. Milk here is more or less a martyr, missing all-out sainthood only because of his inability to resist earthly pleasures (he drools over dudes, complimenting them on their looks upfront and regardless of their orientation). His gayness is unavoidable, and director Gus Van Sant clearly finds this admirable and worth emulating -- just minutes into the movie, we watch him make out with James Franco. Franco, by the way, is good enough to feel like more than just total eye candy. Same with Josh Brolin, who exhibits believable conflict as Milk's city-supervisor peer and ultimate assassin, Dan White. The others on the screen don't fare as well -- the supporting performances range from forgettable (Emile Hirsch) to dreadful (Diego Luna, who gets cut some slack for playing such an annoying character but then grabs it all back with his teeth, chewing the scenery by acting so heavily, his every gesture carries the weight of AN ACTOR'S DECISION).
Beyond some flirtations and pillow talk, little is uttered throughout the two-hour duration of Milk that doesn't deal directly with the cause. While my bladder appreciated that Milk stopped just at aspiring to be epic, I can't help but wish for some more shading because that's where the humanity is. But since a biopic is essentially a summary, broadness is written into the DNA of the genre. And it even makes sense considering the subject matter -- the movie is inherently surreal and larger-than-life, because the wrongs' hatred is so illogical, it reads like bad sci-fi.
Yes, Milk preaches to a choir, but it's one that isn't particularly educated, in my estimation. I think that has a little to do with the self-hatred in gays that can keep us from understanding ourselves and those who made our present conditions possible (meager as they may seem), but it also has to do with not being given very much to work with. It'll be a weird day when gay history becomes everybody's history, but a major Hollywood production like Milk advances that endeavor. I've long lamented the lack of a gay figure as inspiring and visible as the Malcoms and Martins, but now I think the issue is less about existence than exposure. In packaging Harvey Milk's story as something so consumable, Van Sant allows Harvey Milk to reverberate. Milk is a good movie about a great man that still manages to be almost as essential as he was. If nothing else, it tip-toes closer to cinematic equality, giving gays a broad, overly expository, exclamatory and compassion-triggering biopic of our own. Because we deserve it, damn it.