When watching a movie with an overt political message at its core, it’s sometimes difficult to divorce the movie from the cause. The film Milk espouses a lot of messages that I believe in, including equal rights for everyone and a belief in the transformative power of community organizing. But does the film succeed at creating a nuanced and fascinating portrait of its subject? Or does it rely too heavily on the conventions that are characteristic of the biopic genre?
Gus Van Sant’s Milk tells the story of Harvey Milk, a gay man who moves to San Francisco’s Castro district and who encounters bigotry due to his lifestyle. Motivated by a desire for societal change and acceptance, Milk becomes the first openly gay man ever elected to public office (City Supervisor, 1978). Over the course of his career, he battles a group of conservatives who try to enact a California referendum which would effectively deprive homosexuals of civil rights.
Milk is undoubtedly a prescient film, its release coming hot off the heels of the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which effectively bans gay marriage in that state. I saw Milk one day after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, but after it was reported that Prop 8 was leading in votes in California. In my mind, the film’s messages of hope intermingled with the bittersweet knowledge that while our culture had taken two steps in a progressive direction, gay rights had taken one step back. Sitting there in the theater, with the film’s final tear-jerking shot, it was difficult to know how to feel. Yet despite Milk‘s noble intentions and its dazzling array of performances, it ended up being a film I admired more for its purpose than for its craftsmanship.
Putting the rest of the film aside, the performances are what make Milk unequivocally worth watching. Every single actor here delivers a career-making turn in his/her respective role. Emile Hirsch is virtually unrecognizable as Cleve Jones, an activist and Milk’s protege. Hirsch’s Jones captures the excitement, ambition, but also the fear that must have been palpable in Milk’s campaign office in the 1970s. Josh Brolin continues his almost unbelievably excellent string of performances as the tortured and disturbed supervisor Dan White. Even James Franco lends significant gravitas to his role as Scott Smith, Milk’s boyfriend at the beginning of the film, and perhaps his true love.
But what of Sean Penn? We’ve talked about the differences between imitation and embodiment on the /Filmcast. For an actor playing a real-life person, there’s a difference between simply recreating someone’s voice and tics, and making those characteristics one’s own. Sean Penn falls squarely into the latter category. Penn is magnificent as Harvey Milk, and I’m convinced he should be nominated for Best Actor for his work here (and that he should win). Penn’s Milk comes across as both a glowing tribute to the man he’s playing, yet also an original creation entirely. When you see and hear the difference in Penn’s voice when he’s making a bombastic rally speech, compared to when he’s dictating the tired and wizened narration that bookends the film, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Where the film suffers is in its script and structure. Composed like a conventional biopic, Milk never ends up transcending the constraints of the genre. What I found bothersome was the movie’s apparent desire to introduce as many characters and subplots as possible. I realize that each one of these people played an important role in Milk’s life and in the broader story of reform, but at some point, one has to sacrifice versimilitude for the sake of narrative effectiveness. For example, the relationship between Milk and Jack Lira (played wonderfully by Diego Luna) obviously has a deep backstory that’s even referenced several times by the film’s characters. But it’s never given enough time to be developed or explained, and thus, when it is ultimately resolved, there is barely any emotional payoff. Other subplots also suffer, such as the relationship between Milk and Smith, Milk and Jones, or even Milk and White. All of these people’s motivations are lost in a muddle of exposition, as the movie feels too intent on hitting certain beats and recreating specific events to care deeply about character development. A large part of this is due to the vagaries of storytelling in a 2-hour format. As a miniseries, Milk would undoubtedly have had more time to breathe and for each character to be fleshed out; as a movie, its secondary characters are never really given a chance to become real people.
It must be said, though, that the film is beautifully shot by Gus Van Sant favorite Harry Savides, with the historical Castro district rendered thrilingly and convincingly. In particular, the last shot of the film is transcendent and moving, a testament to the immutability of the human spirit.
Milk comes out amidst a crush of positive reviews and critical enthusiasm. As I’m writing this, the film is tracking well above 90% at Rottentomatoes. Many have declared the film an unquestionable triumph, praising the film’s timeliness and Sean Penn’s performance. I am tempted to posit that the film’s message serves as part of the motivation for critics’ exorbitant praise, but even if this were true (which is extremely debateable), it certainly doesn’t invalidate their experiences or opinions. While I certainly can’t fault critics for finding Milk a brilliant film, none of their glowing praise can change the fact that, as much as I support the film’s powerful message of hope, I really, really wanted to love Milk but only ended up liking it.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10
David Chen can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail.com.