Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco
Running Time: 128 min.
*** (out of ****)
There are few directors working today as unpredictable and inconsistent as Gus Van Sant. Always straddling that line between art house fare (Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park) and the mainstream (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) he’s the rare filmmaker for which you can honestly claim that you haven’t a clue what to expect each time out. With Milk he’s made the most standard, mainstream film of his career, which is kind of ironic considering the subject he’s tackling this time around. Had another less skilled director had made it and it covered another less timely topic I’m not sure it would be garnering the adulation and awards buzz it has. It’s a good film, just not a great one like you’ve been led to believe.
For those who disagree and feel Milk should be among the five films nominated for Best Picture let me just refer you to one scene. In it, Harvey Milk, in one of his three bids to become the first openly gay official elected to public office, receives an anonymous, emotional phone call from a teen who had come out to his parents and is now contemplating suicide. Then the camera pans down to reveal…he’s also in a wheelchair. Supposedly, this event did happen but I’m judging its authenticity on the screen, not in real life. As a stand-alone scene I can forgive it (I’ve seen worse), but what’s troublesome is the nagging feeling that it’s in some way an accurate representation of the film’s motives. It tells you what to feel instead of just letting you feel it and marks off boxes on its historical checklist as it goes along, never fully engaging you emotionally. The result is a film I respected a great deal, but couldn’t rally around like I desperately wanted.
Arguing its greatness solely on the basis that it houses one of Sean Penn’s most dynamic and interesting performances in the title role have a very strong argument because he supplies whatever emotion is lacking elsewhere, and it’s almost enough. He shows a jubilant side of himself here as an actor that we haven’t seen before. In all the roles he’s played I don’t think I’ve ever seen tackle a man who’s actually happy with his life and is doing what he wants to do. It’s thrilling to see him actually smiling for a change after all the morose, tortured protagonists he’s brilliantly portrayed over the years. Harvey Milk may have met a tragic end but he did it doing what he loved and his infectious warmth is in every one of Penn’s words and mannerisms, which is news because I had my doubts as to whether he was an actor even capable of projecting warmth.
It’s a good thing Penn is this strong because Dustin Lance Black’s script doesn’t make him the easiest guy in the world to root for nor does it portray those he was trying to help in the most favorable light. At times during the picture I also questioned the protagonist’s motives in asking everyday citizens to vote for him BECAUSE he’s gay. The movie stacks the deck in that regard, but being gay wasn’t just a political platform for Milk, it was his life.
While the film seems to do him justice it’s more of a “big issue movie” than a biopic. Milk would always open his speeches with “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m going to recruit you,” but that may as well be Van Sant’s motto. He comes off as unnecessarily trying to recruit us for a cause. I consider myself fairly liberal and love the biopic as a genre and even I found he was beating the drum very hard. My thoughts on the film will read as somewhat negative only because given what I’ve heard about its quality I can’t help but feel disappointed. Outside of Penn’s performance there just isn’t a whole lot here, but what is here is done well enough to at least earn a look.
The film begins in the early ‘70’s with Milk (Penn) and his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco) packing their bags and leaving the hustle and bustle in New York for San Francisco where they open a small camera shop on Castro Street. The neighborhood is slowly transforming into a gay hangout, which doesn’t sit well with other storeowners and local politicians. They consider that “lifestyle choice” immoral, and despite depending on them for revenue, refuse to treat them as equals in any way. Out of this Milk emerges as a local activist and hero (eventually elected city supervisor in his third bid) while the debate regarding gay rights reaches a fever pitch on the national level.
The widespread homophobia is powered by pop star/evangelist Anita Bryant and California Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) whom Milk battles in the fight against Proposition 6, which would give schools the right to fire gay teachers. Anointed “The Mayor of Castro Street,” Milk grew a legion of followers including dependable sidekick Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) and new boyfriend Jack Lira (Diego Luna in an entertainingly awful performance). All these characters are really just colorful wallpaper though and at moments disappointingly call to attention the worst gay stereotypes.
I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that Milk (along with Mayor George Moscone) is assassinated by fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) in 1978 (that information is dispensed in the first scene). A man who worried that he’d accomplished nothing by the age of 40 ended up accomplishing more in the next 8 years than most could in a lifetime. Ironically, the relationship between Milk and White and the details leading up to and including the assassination I found to be the most fascinating aspect to the film. White isn’t portrayed how you’d expect and if someone had told me halfway through that they actually sympathized with White’s situation (at least before he completely loses his marbles) I could see where they were coming from. That Brolin plays him with such depth and nuance only reinforces that. Because Black’s script is essentially a gay history lesson Penn has to carry everything as the flamboyant and charismatic Milk, and does he ever. His energy and enthusiasm are the beating pulse of the picture and he can comfortably start preparing his Oscar acceptance speech. I wish he had more to work with, but that he’s given this little and turns it into so much proves just how good he is. He literally BECOMES Harvey Milk.
Cinematographer Harris Savides does his usual great work although I’d argue he did one better in interpreting 1970’s San Francisco in last year’s Zodiac. Van Sant’s use of actual archival footage doesn’t really help the film’s cause as it at times makes the endeavor feel like any other cut-and-paste biopic you could catch on The History Channel. Nor does his portrayal of gays as sex maniacs and drug addicts who streak down the street naked. Of course, this is more a reflection of the times and situation than anyone’s sexual preference, but it’s a tall order to expect viewers (especially straight ones) to make that distinction. As I was leaving the theater I overheard someone remark that they felt the film was “too gay.” While those wouldn’t have been my choice of words I kind of understood what he meant.
A curiously under-reported aspect to the film is that there were many sex scenes that would make even the most tolerant, open-minded filmgoer wince. I noticed many in my theater squirming uncomfortably in their seats. If Van Sant put them in to just simply give the most accurate portrayal possible then it’s fine but if he did for shock value or thought it would be a riot to rub uptight audience’s noses in it then it's not. I can’t speak to his intentions but for those who don’t think the latter is possible consider this: How many movies open with two total strangers randomly making out then running home and jumping in the sack? It’ll be interesting to see how the allegedly homophobic Academy reacts to the film considering just a few years ago they wouldn’t even honor Brokeback Mountain, which was essentially a love story that happened to feature two gay characters.
You could say it’s hypocritical of me to point out so many of the film’s flaws yet still recommend it but the truth of the matter is that it’s a well-made, exceptionally acted film that kept me interested, but always at an arms distance away. My duty is to review it as a film not a potential Best Picture contender but when something is this widely overpraised it almost becomes impossible to separate the two. If this were nominated for the big prize (and heaven forbid it actually won) it would be one of the most underwhelming choices in years. In many ways I feel about this film how many have told me they feel about another awards contender this year, Slumdog Millionaire, meaning that it’s good, but all the love needs to be taken down a few notches. I guess since this is based on a true story it’s allowed to be as preachy and uplifting as it wants while Slumdog gets unfairly dragged through the mud and labeled as manipulative.
Harvey Milk’s story is inspiring and this covers a timely topic but the inherent contradiction in it is that gay rights should be a human issue, not a political one. In exploring the life of a political figure, Van Sant has problems reconciling the two and what sometimes results is a film pushing an agenda. Luckily, Penn was there to save him, if just barely. Milk is a reminder that Oscars should be given to great films, not great causes, no matter how important or relevant they may be.