The Artifact: Milk, the 2008 biopic of martyred gay activist Harvey Milk, who, in 1977, became the first openly gay elected official in the United States. He was assassinated one
year later. Gus Van Sant’s film follows Milk, played ebulliently in an Oscar-winning turn by the usually dour Sean Penn, and his crack team of wonderfully characterized gay activists through the political minefield that was California in 1978 – a political minefield which does not appear to be all that different from the California of 2008 or, for that matter, 2011.

The most obvious point of comparison for Gus Van Sant’s Milk is Spike Lee’s 1992 tour de force, Malcolm X.

The similarities are almost eerie; they would slap anyone with two brain cells still functioning right in the kisser. Let’s see, you have:

  • Visionary director with a clear message (Lee and Van Sant).
  • Career-defining performance from a male lead so seemingly in tune with the spirit of the dead man he plays that, frankly, it becomes a little frightening (Denzel Washington as Malcolm Little, Penn as Harvey Milk).
  • A story that delights in the creative opportunities that its period trappings offer (For Malcolm, the period from the ‘30s to the ‘60s; for Milk, the breadth of the ‘70s).
  • A plot that does not shy away from complicated, behind-closed-doors politics (the treachery of the Nation of Islam; the bureaucracy in San Francisco’s elite gay community and in its City Hall).
  • Political activism and martyrdom as prominent themes.
  • A community fighting for their human rights, sometimes violently, always passionately.
  • A brutal assassination.
  •  A release date that coincided so eerily with contemporary keruffles that you almost had to ask if the biopic’s subjects had asked in their wills that those films be released at precisely the moment when they would be most relevant (Lee’s film came out in the midst of the early-‘90s race riots; Van Sant’s in the immediate wake of the Prop 8 battle in California).

I mean, the connections between the two films are obvious if you take a moment to look for them, because the way we tell the story of the martyred activist is, in its own way, so very set in stone.

Considering all this, perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Milk, which is a truly resplendent, imaginative and respectful portrait of a very important man, is that I did not once think of this rather obvious comparison until after the movie was already over.

While I was watching Milk, I did not have two brain cells still functioning; all of my brain cells were dedicated to the thrill that is Milk – a movie filled with engaging detail after engaging detail and engrossing performance after engrossing performance. And so, for a delightful (and harrowing: I admit to clenching up in terror just about every time Harvey Milk and the mayor were in the same vicinity for fear that gun shots would ring out before I was prepared and I would be shattered) two hours, I operated under the illusion that I had never seen a movie like this before; that Milk was the first and greatest movie about assassinated martyrs fighting for their marginalized community through impassioned speeches and hard-line action.

As I jumped on my scooter after finishing Milk, I had a real “Doh!” moment. With distance, I saw how similar Lee’s and Van Sant’s movies were in plot and relevance to contemporary topics, if not necessarily in tone. How could I have forgotten about Malcolm X, a movie I am very fond of? (JFK and Bobby do not factor into this discussion, because they are not biopics.) As I made my merry way to the video store to return Milk, I listed out in my head all the similarities you see above and realized that of course Milk was
not the first movie to deal with all these themes. It is the greatest though.

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Malcolm X is way too long. At its center is Denzel Washington giving the performance of a lifetime. Around him are a lot of performances that are not nearly as good as Washington’s comprising a movie that feels constantly powerful and moving and inspiring, but is all those things for entirely too much time. Lee had a big point to make in making this movie, especially since his comandeering of the director’s chair at the last minute had been so controversial, so every portion of Malcolm’s life, in Lee’s telling, is drenched with meaning. Lots of meaning.

The movie feels a bit like your clothes do when you get out of the pool — dragging down in spite of themselves, sticky and close and slow. It often feels, in spite of how enthralling Denzel is at the center of it all, as if the movie lacks overriding narrative direction, which is amazing considering we all know what is going to happen to Malcolm X and we know exactly when and we know exactly how. I love Malcolm X, but one of its strength is not tightness. Not like Lee couldn’t do tight. Do The Right Thing is this perfectly timed, perfectly paced miracle of light giving way to dark. It is capable of great levity and horrible tragedy. By 1992, Lee, feeling he had been given full leeway to say what he wanted to, said just about everything he wanted to, and as a result, films like Malcolm X feel like they are set to the same volume throughout. Because of this, Lee, an inspired visual stylist and message man, has never really been able to recapture the story-telling spark he got from his race fable set during one day on a Bed-Stuy street.

Milk avoids these missteps brilliantly. It’s no that Van Sant doesn’t care about the message. Van Sant is an openly gay filmmaker who puts his heart and soul into getting Milk and his message right, for obvious reason, but he very clearly puts the story before the man and the message, a move even more shocking coming from a very challenging, very un-mainstream director such as Van Sant. Milk is a tight, brisk story aided immensely by a well-paced script that builds dramatically, and with focus, to the assassination we all know is coming. The filmmaker made a very concious decision to make it so.

Milk is a story of transformation, like Malcolm X. Unlike Lee’s film, though, it gives us Harvey Milk on the verge of that transformation from closeted Republican Establishment to out hippie activist and acts out the totality of that transformation. It lets us fill in the rest, and you know what? We do. Lee does not start on the cusp of transformation. Rather then watch Malcolm emerge from his cocoon, we watch painfully as he builds it only to emerge from it at the very end of his life. Lee clumsily falters through Malcolm’s childhood, delights for an hour in his criminal youth, wades murkily through his time in prison, chronicles his rise through the Nation of Islam, wallows through his marriage and home life and finally arrives triumphantly at his late-in-life transformation into a truly liberated leader free of the shackles of the Nation. Through it all, Denzel Washington is surrounded by memorable characters and somewhat shady villains, but you never feel much warmth or absolute enmity towards anyone in the film. Lee does not want you to. Good for Lee! Not great for you, the viewer.

Not so with Van Sant. He uses economic film language to make his supporting cast (Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Allison Pill, the annoying blond kid from High School Musical, and many less famous actors getting absolutely the right amount of screen time to make you feel like Harvey is surrounded by a living family, a true community) full and supportive and joyful and — god forbid — warm. There is a warmth to Harvey Milk’s relationships with the people around him, a delightfully human crackle, like a perfectly apportioned campfire, that seems so much more welcoming, so much more cinematic, then the blazing fire that swallows an American flag in Lee’s opening credits and seems to define his entire film. Malcolm X is great, but scalds, you can’t touch it, a fact which I am sure Lee, who I greatly admire, is very proud of. Milk is a movie you can warm your hands and your heart to. It is a candlelight vigil, not an effigy.

Does this mean Milk doesn’t have any teeth? Yes and no. It has teeth, but they only gnash out with surgical precision when it is time to unleash them, rather than constantly gnawing on the leg of anyone who comes too close. Milk has distinct villains (religious mom Anita Bryant, shown only in stock footage, keeping a daunting distance; bigoted Senator Briggs; and, in a wonderfully ambiguous role, eventual assassin Dan White, played by Josh Brolin) and has no problem drawing them in unflattering terms, another cinematic shorthand Lee largely avoids in Malcolm X, to the story’s harm and to the message’s benefit. There are unredeemable monsters in Van Sant’s world. There are also incorruptible good guys, learning the way of the Force under Milk’s Obi-Wan. This is the kind of hippie movie you would never have seen in the murky ’70s, with clear-cut white hats and black hats. It works well now. It is moving without being preachy, informative without feeling like a textbook lesson, inspiring without ever once being sentimental. It is a snappy story filled with enjoyable characters that you are glad to remember come from real, historical people come the film’s close.

So, do I really think that Milk is the greater film because of this. It is a bit of a sell-out, but yes, I do. It puts me right at a crossroads of a question about art that we are all confronted with at some point — a debate which has been at the center of artistic expression for centuries. Should art be comforting? Or challenging? Should it be measured by the enjoyment you reap from it? Or by how difficult it is? I feel like Van Sant and Lee would have very intersting answers to this question, and both have made movies that fall on both sides of this divide, but it is telling that when it came time to make mainstream films about their martyred heroes, the two fairly obviously went in different directions. Lee abstracted his supporting cast, removed sympathetic characters, turned the heat up to unbearable levels, and you feel the heat coming off of the final product. It is a difficult watch, but a worthwhile one for this very reason. Van Sant humanized his supporting cast, congealing them into a family of sympathetic characters that perfectly supported tale, which becomes a tale of uplift. It’s a bit of a sell-out to go with the happier movie, the easier movie, the one that makes you feel better — but I’m not gonna front. Milk manages to get the edge. It’s a great piece of art; and an enjoyable two hours.

Final Verdict: A lucky find at the video store. A wonderful argument for the continued existence of video stores. I totally missed this film in 2008, passed it over, which was, I realize now, a total mistake. Go see this film, and, as a great companion piece (or in general, because it is a fantastic if slightly unbalanced film) see Malcolm X.

The real Harvey Milk. (Watching this, have to reiterate: props to Sean Penn)