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White is played tensely by Josh Brolin, the star of No Country for Old Men, and, more recently, a bewildered George Bush in W. The heavy-limbed, heavy-browed Brolin has the beat-up face and body of a rugby loser, a brutish cross between Burt Lancaster and Nick Nolte. He senses that his hypermasculinity has fallen out of style, and feels he's lost: he thinks it's all he's got. A victory for gay rights feels like an assault on his manhood, his marriage, even his Jesus. The movie asks us to consider what this guy is afraid of. In court, White blamed the killings on junk food—a defense sardonically characterized as the result of eating too many Twinkie cakes. He went to prison for five years, and committed suicide when he got out. He seems never to have understood why Milk's popularity was so dangerous to him.
Both Milk and Frost/Nixon are about the sometimes confusing interplay between outsiders and insiders in our rapidly changing times, making us wonder whether it's Richard Nixon or Dan White who's more wretched in his deep confusion about where he fits in the world. One difference is that we don't recoil from White as we do Nixon, who deftly exploited our fears for his bottomless ambition; White is just bewildered and lost. Nevertheless, we watch in horror as we come to understand why someone would kill a person who just wanted to be his friend.
Ultimately, White doesn't understand that the rules about who's inside and who's outside have changed, and he can't find his place in this new scheme of things. He's grown up trying to turn himself into the 1950s model of the all-American boy, but then discovers, to his horror, that macho is out of style, and blames those who were so loathed in his youth but now seem to have moved into the charmed circle. Like us guys in my Alabama swamp, he needed a guide around the alligators, but never found one. Maybe he just went to see the wrong movies.
Frank Pittman, M.D., is a contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and is in private practice. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters to the Editor about this department can be e-mailed to email@example.com.