While PJ and I were in NYC earlier this month, we took the opportunity to see Gus Van Sant‘s new movie, Milk, starring Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, and Diego Luna. Milk tells the story of Harvey Milk’s repeated attempts, and ultimate success, to become the first openly gay man to be elected to a major office in the U.S., San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, in 1977. Milk was also famous for having been assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White in 1978.

Here’s the trailer:

There’s no reason to beat around the bush: I loved this movie. I’ll have to think about it a little more before definitely committing to this declaration, but it could very well be the best gay movie I’ve ever seen.

I have nothing but praise for this film. Let’s start with the film’s narrative device. It’s narrated by Milk, who tape records an overview of his life to be played if he is assassinated. I liked this device, since it helps to create a point of view and shapes our vision of Milk himself.

This device feeds into our appreciation of Penn’s performance, since it doubles his role — he’s both the present-tense narrator and the past-tense character. Penn is magnificent in this film. He’s already won an Oscar for Mystic River, which I didn’t really are for. (He should have won that year but for 21 Grams.) If there is any justice in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he’ll win his second Oscar for this role. His performance is transcendent. He beautifully captures Milk’s aspiration, energy, and humor. When he smiles as Milk, you can see why Milk succeeded in the ways he did.

Van Sant’s direction is also top notch. The quality and effectiveness of his films are uneven. Some of them are great, some aren’t. But whether you love his movies or not, they’re almost always interesting. Van Sant is always pushing, always trying to do something new and different. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Milk definitely works.

Most of the time, Van Sant’s direction in this movie goes unnoticed, which is good. The major moment where it draws attention to itself is the film’s climatic moment — Milk’s assassination — near the end. It’s a moment we all know is coming, so I think it must have been a difficult decision on how to film it. Van Sant chooses to slow everything down and even pause for a few seconds while following Milk’s gaze out an office window. It’s beautifully shot and changes the meaning of the scene to some degree. Instead of just being a movie about an assassination, this scene’s direction reinforces the movie’s theme of hope, fighting for the future, and standing openly and proud as a community.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Brolin and Franco are both getting good reviews for their work. Franco gives the most mature performance of his career to date. He’s aging well into more adult roles. And Brolin has been on a roll in the past couple of years. I thought he deserved recognition from the Academy last year for his roles in No Country for Old Men and American Gangster. Any recognition he receives this year will be much deserved.

Luna has received some criticism for his performance as Milk’s last lover, Jack Lira. In comparison with the other performance, Luna’s seems over the top. While I can see this criticism, I think the choice to play this character in the way Luna plays it works. Lira is depicted as “troubled” from his first appearance on screen. I think this emphasis is necessary for the film’s view of Milk. If Lira were portrayed differently, it might affect our judgment of Milk’s relationship with him (i.e., we might blame him more for its direction), which might in turn affect our view of Milk more generally (that he’s a jerk, for example). I think Luna and Van Sant want to avoid going down this road and therefore chose to have his character appear more outrageous so that we place the blame on him rather than on Milk.

One can’t help but watch this film as a response to the passage of Proposition 8 in California specifically and to the gay rights movement today generally. In this light, I think the movie offers a vivid critique of both but especially to the latter. It implicitly asks where today’s Harvey Milks are. Who will step up and lead? It also asks how the gay community will stand up for itself against religiously inspired bigots. In case we’ve forgotten, the religious right isn’t really interested in toleration or acceptance for gay people; like Dan White, their issues with sexuality, identity, and gender are pathological.

The scenes in which Milk and his friends rally gays in San Francisco literally brought tears to my eyes. Maybe it’s because I live in a tiny little college town, but I can’t really imagine what it would be like to join with thousands of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to march (somewhat spontaneously)  for our rights, to stand up for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I couldn’t help but wonder if the successes of the gay community in the past couple of decades have somehow also weakened our sense of community and political action or whether my sense of this lack is more a result of geography than reality. Maybe if PJ and I lived in San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York we would feel part of a community. Maybe it’s easier to “write a check” to the Human Rights Campaign rather than to engage more directly with the political process. And maybe we’ve become too used to waiting, to letting others — primarily straight politicians — lead, to compromising on gay issues just because it seems politically expedient.

Milk suggests to me, however, that the lack of community, the passivity, and the compromising are wider phenomena. Gays and lesbians are more visible than ever in our culture, but we’re also more dispersed and less focused than ever. The religious right and conservative media like to rant about the “homosexual agenda” but I’m not sure there is any coherent gay agenda. I couldn’t help but remember a line from Angels in America while watching this movie. Tony Kushner gives Roy Cohn a great speech about what a “homosexual” is. According to Kushner’s Cohn, words like “homosexual,” “gay,” or “lesbian” don’t refer to who someone sleeps with. He explains:

Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, not sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout.

Milk seems to agree with this idea and to call for today’s gay community to become more effective advocates for our own rights. It implicitly advocates for us to organize. In the 1970s, gay men and women fought for their very existence. We have to decide whether marriage equity, Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, or some other issue is a continuation of this fight. We have to become not just visible but known. We have to become a political force, people with enough clout to get what we want accomplished. Or, is the gay civil rights movement over, a thing of historical interest only?

In this regard, Milk is obviously about a lot more than just one man. It’s about all of us. It’s about the future of gays and lesbians in America. This movie seems optimistic about these issues. It argues that we have role models, not just Milk but also the men and women around him who continue to work on gay rights issues today. I’m still thinking through the issues the film raises, but I can definitely say that it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.