The Gospel of Harvey Milk

Photo: Phil Bray/Courtesy of Focus Features

While not up there in the annals of transformation with Robert De Niro’s poundage or Daniel Day-Lewis’s palsy, Sean Penn’s smile lines in Milk are a wonder. They’re not crinkles, they’re furrows; they seem to stretch all the way down to his soul. As the gay activist Harvey Milk, who was shot to death in 1978 along with the San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, the volatile Penn is unprecedentedly giddy. There’s anger in his Milk, but it never festers—it’s instantly channeled into political action. In the tedious remake of All the King’s Men, Penn went in for Method-y pauses in the scenes of Willie Stark finding his soapbox voice: He seemed too inward an actor to play a natural rabble-rouser. But as Milk, he shakes off Method self-attention the way Milk shook off the shame of being gay. As the personal becomes political, he opens all the windows and gets visibly high on the breeze.

Milk is a hagiography, but there’s nothing wrong with that if you believe, as director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black obviously do, in the gospel of Harvey Milk. And queer hagiography is bracingly different from that other kind, in that it’s often, so to speak, ass-backward, the road to rebirth leading through the flesh instead of around it. There aren’t many life stories of saints in which the hero’s salvation begins with picking up a studly young Midwesterner in a New York City subway station on the eve of said hero’s 40th birthday. After their happy sex, Milk lies beside Scott Smith (James Franco) and muses on the closeted life he has lived until then. So he sets off with his new lover for San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, for a life to be lived aboveground, in the light.

Gay writer Black grew up in a military home (whammy) that also happened to be Mormon (double whammy), and he has written episodes of HBO’s dizzying Big Love. His view of the Castro of the early seventies as a sexual Eden is heady, unsullied by post-AIDS hindsight, and Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides have an easy touch. There are no hallowed clinches à la Brokeback Mountain; every gay smooch doesn’t carry the weight of the world.

In the flush of all the new arrivals, the Castro is a burgeoning gay ecosystem; Milk, who has opened a camera store, fortifies its roots by singling out businesses for boycott that aren’t homo-friendly, then sets out to become the first openly gay elected officeholder in San Francisco. Lovers drift in and out, but Black and Van Sant ease them to the edge of the frame; we’re not entirely sure why Milk and Smith break off or how Milk could possibly take in a Mexican lover (Diego Luna) who is so egregiously, epically crazy.

The filmmakers don’t pry, possibly because so many people in Milk’s orbit are still around (and on the set), but more likely because they mean for Milk to be so psychologically upbeat—to inspire future activists. That’s laudable, especially now, with the passage of Proposition 8 in Milk’s old stomping grounds. But it doesn’t make for great drama. The threats are largely from the outside, from Anita Bryant and, of course, Milk’s murderer, uptight fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin with a bowl haircut). Milk refers to him as a closet case, but it’s unclear what White is except confused (then violent), but Brolin is always busy playing something. He’s the only actor with a meaty subtext. Good as Penn is, it’s too bad he didn’t have a chance to show us Milk before his emergence—not for the same old coming-out-of-the-closet story, but because the “Before” picture (Milk among the straights) would give the “After” more weight. Milk is one of the most heartfelt portraits of a politician ever made—the man himself remains just out of reach.

It’s no mystery why Stephenie Meyer’s romantic vampire saga Twilight gets under the skin of so many young readers—and why the movie, although nowhere near as penetrating, will be the occasion for mass public swoon-a-thons. It’s the biochemistry angle. See, the gorgeous vampire, Edward (Robert Pattinson), is driven mad with desire by the high-school heroine Isabella’s scent. He smells her, and his eyes become a feral yellow-black; and she loves him hungrily, too, in her ordinary teenage raging hormonal way. But in the vampire universe, appetites can’t be controlled. One taste of her blood could trigger carnage on an operatic scale.

Meyer’s prose is skimmable but her dialogue hits all the right beats; experiencing these two beautiful creatures’ enforced sexual suppression on the page made me feel like I was 17 again. The movie, though, is cautious and rather wan, a sort of Tiger Beatified Twin Peaks. But a lot of people have so much invested that they’ll love it anyway. At the screening I went to, three rows of girls shrieked at the entrance of Pattinson and shrieked again when he locked eyes with Bella (Kristen Stewart). He’s more my idea of a hunky Frankenstein than a hunky vampire, with six inches of hair above six inches of forehead above a foot of face in too-obvious white greasepaint. But when he rolls his eyeballs up and stares down at Stewart, trying to convey the hopelessness of their situation, his dippy sincerity is touching.

You’ll need to have read the book to pick up on all the vibes—the couple is writhing in the throes of intimacy before their intimacy has even been established. The best thing in the movie is Stewart. She was the leggy hobo-camp teen in love with Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild, and she’s better at conveying physical longing than any of the actors playing vampires. She alone suggests how this series was born, in the mind of a young Mormon girl who had to sublimate like mad with thoughts of having her blood sucked. With characters that veer between implosive sexual repression (Twilight) and explosive sexual liberation (Milk), are Mormons the new Catholics?

How can one do justice to Baz Luhrmann’s overripe epic Australia? It’s several types of primitive melodrama—cattle-drive Western, war picture, anti- racist message movie—whirred together, burnished with state-of-the-art CGI, and blessed with dialogue that defies parody. In one scene, the transplanted Englishwoman (Nicole Kidman) gazes moist-eyed on the rough-and-ready cattleman (Hugh Jackman) as he caresses an edgy stallion, and you know her line will be a clever variation on “You really have a gift with horses.” Instead, she says, “You really have a gift with horses.” It’s like that all the way through, down to the Aboriginal sidekick who lectures the hero with “You’re scared a gettin’ your heart hurt like before … without love in your heart you got nothin’.” Jackman has musical-theater chops and knows how to sell material this ham-handed; Kidman isn’t quite as deft. I’ve always admired her gumption in working so hard to overcome a certain temperamental tightness—but that tightness has now spread to her skin. In one scene, she haltingly sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to an orphaned half-caste; but watching that big immovable forehead, I thought of another bit from The Wizard of Oz: “Oiiil caaan.”

Milk
Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Focus Features. R.

Twilight
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke.
Summit Entertainment. PG-13.

Australia
Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
Twentieth Century Fox. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

The Gospel of Harvey Milk