Gus Van Sant’s new film, Milk, is thoughtful, patient, funny and touching, and both Sean Penn and James Franco should get Oscars, but it doesn’t answer the questions any biopic raises for me: what’s it for and why now? Or perhaps it does have the answers, but we have to do our own digging for them.

Harvey Milk was an elected official of the city of San Francisco, said to be the first openly gay man to hold public office in the United States. His title was supervisor, but the job resembled that of a city councillor elsewhere. He and the mayor who supported him were shot and killed in 1978 by another, resentful supervisor called Dan White. White served five years for manslaughter and committed suicide soon after his release.

The film opens over black and white footage of police rounding up and beating up gays in the early 1970s. Newspaper headlines fill the screen, the effect is that of an old-time newsreel. Then we cut to Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, looking drained and sorrowful and a little scared, but also steady and resigned, even proud. He doesn’t know he’s going to die, but he thinks he might – he has always believed, we soon learn, that he would never reach the age of 50 and he’s 48 now – and of course, because we know the history, his death is everywhere in this scene and all the others. He’s dictating a note into a tape-recorder, and Van Sant repeatedly cuts back to this moment and the continuing note as a form of punctuation of his story. It’s very musically done, a refrain that keeps returning just when you feel you need a reminder of the timeframe.

Now we move back to 1970, when Milk picks up Scott Smith (James Franco – last seen, by me at least, in the Spider-Man movies) in the New York subway, finds himself in a lasting relationship, comes out of the closet and moves to California, shedding his suit for denims and growing a beard and ponytail. He looks like a belated, generic hippy, like almost everyone you ever saw in the 1960s. He opens a camera shop on Castro Street in San Francisco, and a whole gay community gathers around him. But then he wants to change the world, and runs for office. He cuts his hair, shaves off his beard, gets a new three-piece suit – all without for a moment appearing less gay. This is very much Milk’s (and Van Sant’s) point. The right to be gay includes the right to look gay, to be gay in public, and in Milk’s view this look and this act may sometimes be everything. When Scott and others, later in the film, suggest that not everyone has to leave the closet, that privacy too is an important right, Milk says eloquently: ‘At this time, in this place, privacy is the enemy.’

This time, this place, is the America of Anita Bryant, and a great surge of (horribly popular) homophobia. Anita Bryant was a singer turned Christian crusader, and she and her supporters managed to get gay rights – that is, the rights of gay people to be people like anyone else – repealed in Minnesota, Florida, Kansas and Oregon. As I understand it, this situation does not resemble that of other minorities. It’s not that old discriminations were being enforced. New discriminations were being introduced. The climax of this campaign, in the movie and in history, was California’s Proposition Six, which looked for a while as if it would be carried overwhelmingly. It was sponsored by Senator John Briggs, creepily played by Denis O’Hare, and was intended to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. It said that any teacher ‘advocating, imposing, encouraging or promoting’ homosexual activity could be fired. Quite a large mandate, and even Ronald Reagan, no longer governor of California, and not yet president of the country, was against the proposition.

Of course, because this is a biopic and because we know the story, the proposition is overturned, largely thanks to Milk’s inventive and charismatic appearances. But this isn’t what gets him killed. Dan White (Josh Brolin) has tried, as a supervisor, to make political deals with Milk, a little horse-trading for votes; Milk is not opposed to this in principle, but finds some of White’s projects impossible to support in practice. White resigns, and then wants to rescind his resignation. The mayor, pushed by Milk, who has considerable clout with the board of supervisors by now – the mayor in the movie accuses him of having become an old-fashioned machine politician – refuses to allow this, and White shoots them both.

Brolin as White is a heavy-breathing fellow who doesn’t know what’s going on with himself or his world. Is he secretly gay? Does he know he’s gay? Surely he does. This is the theory Milk and his friends hold, but White’s political and moral helplessness matters more than the reasons for it. In the movie’s finest scene, a drunken White confronts Milk with what he thinks is the key to Milk’s success. Milk has found an ‘issue’ that works for him and has built a career on it. He, White, doesn’t have an ‘issue’, but if he could find one he would be made. Milk – Penn is really remarkable at this point, shedding all the fey and louche charm which has always accompanied even his serious moments – says what he has is not an issue, not a platform he discovered for his ambition, but a task. He recites a list of gay men who have committed suicide – and elsewhere in the movie we see him taking calls from a desperate young man ready to do the same – and says he wants to end these needless deaths, to abolish the ubiquitous pressure towards guilt and hiding. What’s moving and powerful here is not the slightly saintly flavour of Milk’s stance – he must be as ambitious as the next man, however fine his purpose – but the identification of the difference between a politician with a cause and a politician who doesn’t even know what a cause is. White continues to believe that Milk is just luckier and smarter than he is, and that the world works solely by means of the manipulations he doesn’t know how to perform. It’s a subtle diagnosis of a murder motive: unbearable bafflement.

The movie gets a little sticky around here. Milk attends a performance of Tosca, then dies his own operatic death, in close-up and slow motion. Apparently unregretted in City Hall, where a sparsely attended memorial ceremony takes place, he is mourned by 30,000 people carrying candles through the streets of San Francisco, a screen-filling stream of lights.

Isn’t this what biopics are for? Hagiography; and a retelling of the saint’s story for those who don’t know it? This is a plausible claim, and must be part of the answer. But it doesn’t tell us why we need fiction and actors, and why the very good 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk isn’t enough. Rob Epstein, the director of that film, says the difference is that his work is about the public Harvey Milk and continues into White’s trial, with its infamous ‘Twinkie’ defence – the claim was that the balance of the man’s mind was disturbed by his eating so much junk food – while Van Sant’s film concentrates on the private life and the gay community around it. This is true, but underplays the art of fiction, and my own provisional answer to the question of what this movie is for would rest on two things: Van Sant’s fond and lavish portrait of a pre-Aids gay life that is easy, affectionate and crowded, but still haunted by tragedy and madness and still full of the feel of a ghetto, a picture that goes well beyond anything a documentary could do; and the sense, magically rendered by the stills at the end of the film where all the main characters reappear individually, followed by photographs of their real-life counterparts, that this work is not a copy of an actual world but the resurrection of a vanished one. The very visual closeness Van Sant has achieved – the characters do look amazingly like their counterparts – highlights this effect, since likeness is to identity as fiction is to history. The film reminds us where we were and asks where we are. This is perhaps an answer to the second question about biopics. If we are wondering ‘why now’ perhaps we need to wonder a little more.

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