Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Milk Train - How far it came, and how far it has yet to go

A little while back, I was in the cinema and there was a slew of trailers, all of which I wanted to see. This is, to say the least, unusual. One of them was Frost/Nixon (of which, hopefully, more next week), the second was Milk.

Dedicated readers of this blog will already be familiar with the story of America's first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk. This is because his life story has been dramatised before in an eponymous opera. Donald Runnicles conducted the world premiere and also a CD recording, which we reviewed a year and a half ago.

I would put in a spoiler warning, and, indeed, I warned friends off reading reviews that gave away that Milk is assassinated. However, since that is revealed in practically the first sentence of the film, there seems little point. That said, I will not go so far as the Metro and reveal the assassin's identity. Of course, I knew this going in, but there was still some suspense. In some ways, revealing the death at the outset is an effective, and well tested, trick for heightening this.


The film covers a much shorter period than the opera, which broadly, very broadly, charts Milk's whole life. Instead, Gus Van Saint limits himself to just the last eight years. This is probably a correct decision, since it is the politically and historically interesting portion of Milk's life (one of the people I saw the film with remarked that they'd have liked a little more of his personal life, but I disagree - the personal lives of celebrities are rarely as interesting as their public achievements). The film is narrated by Sean Penn, as Milk, recording a tape of his political last will. Such a tape genuinely existed, and was featured at the close of the opera, so one assumes this dialogue is faithful.

At the start of 1972 Milk and his lover Scott Smith move to San Francisco and to the Castro neighbourhood. Here he sets up a camera shop but is ostracised by more conservative elements of the local community and harassed by the police. Milk begins to organise, at first boycotts of unfriendly merchants, but this soon moves into a series of election campaigns, culminating in his successful run for city supervisor.

Along the way there are some powerful moments of history, not least the fight again proposition six, spearheaded by the likes of evangelical singer Anita Bryant (a move to allow gay teachers to be fired). There is an especially strong scene where Milk debates the issue with an opponent in ultra-conservative Orange County, blithely asking how on earth they meant to identify them and where he fights back against efforts to conflate the issue with paedophilia. We also see his political skill, as he uses mobs and protests to advance the cause and how he uses an ordinance that became known as the "pooper scooper law" to build support more widely (indeed Wikipedia indicates that a photo opportunity where he stepped in the offending substance was carefully planned).

Supporting roles are very strongly filled, particularly by Josh Brolin as a rival, and more conservative, supervisor Dan White and Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones; as a fan of the show Alias and the musicals of Sondheim, it's great to see Victor Garber as Mayor Moscone. In the closing credits we see photos of actors and the people they portray side by side, the resemblances are striking (the more so as the performances indicate that they were not chosen solely on that basis). It's also interest that Diane Feinstein, a fellow commissioner, and now a senator for California, taking such a marginal role, particularly when she features relatively prominently in the opera.

The film ends with archive footage (as is often blended in through the movie) of the candlelit march in his memory. This contrasts poignantly
with the more raucous marches he has earlier led to city hall. It is a film very well worth seeing.

However, overall it paints a picture of a man who genuinely made life better for a persecuted minority. And yet, and yet... One cannot help thinking back to November and the result of another ballot in the golden state, proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. Such bans have sprung up across the union. Doubly depressing that this took place in the year another minority made it to the white house. Even here in Britain we are not immune. On Thursday evening I read in the Scotsman of the indignation of a mother whose children had long since been taken from her; the source of her outrage, however, was that they were now to be adopted by a gay couple. The Milk Train has a way to travel yet.

(Interestingly, the expression, The Milk Train, meaning the movement Milk spawned in his campaigns, and which forms the basis of a big number in the opera, finds no mention in the film.)

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