We’ve been putting it off for over 168 less-constructive hours now, but we finally saw Gus Van Sant’s Milk biopic at a special MoMA screening last night. It’s a beautiful, smart, but safely romanticized portrait — New York Magazine’s David Edelstein rightly deemed it a hagiography of the martyred gay activist and San Francisco supervisor — a film whose artistic merit is fortuitously bolstered by the shameful situation surrounding California’s Prop 8. Like the yes-we-can mantra we’ve heard for the past year, Harvey Milk’s own hopeful, equal-opportunity message suffuses the film with warmth, even as historical fact propels the proceedings toward its tragic end like a fatalistic drag car.
Van Sant, who was in the city for a Gotham Awards tribute, dropped in for a revealing Q&A with the museum’s dapper Chief Film Curator, Raj Roy. For starters, Van Sant said that he originally wanted Tom Cruise to play Milk’s fellow San Francisco Supervisor and murderer Dan White — a role that the Penn-endorsed Josh Brolin “smoothly” makes his own. Why? Well not for the now-patented psychotic aspect, but “to get star power.” That would have been sure-fire Oscar material: an unhinged Cruise going mano-e-mano with a flamboyant Sean Penn. Van Sant asaid that Matt Damon was also considered, but that a prior project took him out of the running. It would have been an interesting choice if you recall Damon’s creepy, I-want-to-be-Jude-Law turn in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
The cast is stocked with Hollywood’s hottest young (and liberal) actors, which inspired Roy to comment, “thank Harvey for dating such beautiful men.” Sean Penn of course plays Milk and he’s fantastic: he hasn’t smiled this much since, lord, last century! He’s the gayest man alive, with an infectious joie de vivre that emanates (despite a dead-end job) from the moment we lay eyes on him. James Franco — who loved GVS’s My Own Private Idaho and responded to the role proposal with “Yeh, man. Whatever.” — plays Scott Smith, the sketchily-written boyfriend that moves to San Fran with Milk after making out with him in an NYC subway. Meanwhile, Diego Luna plays Jack Lira, Milk’s second and surely insane boyfriend, and Emile Hirsch, who Van Sant knew from an encounter at Toronto Film Festival rather than his much-acclaimed role in Penn’s Into the Wild, accepted the part of the young agitator Cleve Jones. And, of course, an archive-generated Anita Bryant — the church singer who helped rally the anti-gay troops — appears as the us-against-them demagogue.
With his ace cinematographer Harris Salvides (American Gangster, Margot at the Wedding, Zodiac), Van Sant vividly conjured the anything-goes Castro District of the ’70s by mixing footage of painstaking reproductions with expertly-deployed archival footage of the scene. In some ways, the film plays out like The Assassination of Harvey Milk by the Coward Dan White — particularly Milk’s last moments. As with Bob Ford (played in Andrew Dominik’s film by Casey Affleck), White is also given a fair shake — you are made to understand what he does, even if it’s ugly to you. Van Sant attributes the sympathy to Dustin Lance Black’s juggling-act script, which frames each stanza of Milk’s last eight years “through his political ideas” — like a campaign to rid “poop” across San Francisco — rather than his character. In other words, it puts the emphasis on action.
There will be many who kowtow to the film with closed eyes, but it penetrates — if you will — because it’s a do-the-right-thing story that anyone with an open mind can appreciate, flaws and all. In the jam-packed MoMA theatre, there was heartfelt appreciation for the film. The executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the home of the Harvey Milk High School, counseling and legal center for LGBT youth, expressed his thanks on behalf of the students in attendance, adding that he “found [the film] to be truly inspirational.” A choked-up 25-year-old male used his moment to bless Van Sant for “making the film mainstream” and confessed that he was still “shaking from the movie.” Finally, after an audience member asked if Van Sant thought that the film “would have helped [defeat Prop 8],” the director diplomatically answered that he “didn’t know how the film would play” and that if it was bad “if it would help the cause at all.” Now that it’s out, though, he asserted that “more importantly, it has made everyone rise up.”