We followed our series of post-America trip films this evening with a viewing of Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biographical film, Milk. Sean Penn turns in an extraordinary performance as the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California (as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors). The film is excellent on how a suppressed, rather reactionary, East-coaster turns into a liberated, liberal and committed West coast radical and about the compromises that are necessarily made between the public and the private in political life. This must have been an extremely difficult film to get right. For a start, the story had to include a number of mandatory scenes, and it had to be careful not to veer into schmalzy sentimentality. But the cast pull the whole thing off with aplomb and the director succeeds in giving a good sense of the era as well as of the man – or the men, and women, since Milk inspired a group of devoted followers. I haven’t read Randy Schilt’s biography but the film suggests that Milk’s death was not necessarily as arbitrary as it might have seemed. Josh Brolin also turns in an excellent performance as Milk’s tortured political rival and ultimately assassin, Dan White. The script suggests that Milk could maybe have compromised a little more with White and humiliated him a little less and hints that he didn’t because he sensed that White was suppressing his own identity. The link with our recent trip was that we saw Robert Arneson’s powerful portrayal of Mayor George Moscone, also assassinated by Dan White, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In the work, Arneson juxtaposed a grinning bust with a bullet-ridden base full of cultural references and hate messages.