Milk is a film both timely and timeless. Though depicting real events three decades old that would continue to endear for years to come, its portrayal of the massive revolution for change towards homosexuality’s acceptance is more important now than ever. The film’s climactic battle for Proposition 6, which would’ve banned gays from working at schools, is a tough reminder of post-Proposition 8’s gay marriage battle. There’s an invigorating quality to watching the dramatized fight for that civil right, which obviously and unfortunately opens Milk up for an attack about its “agenda.”
Here’s the agenda: it’s to give Sean Penn another chance to dazzle.
The approach taken by the film is to portray Harvey Milk’s life as being synonymous with his political life, as if the man himself had been overtaken by his idealism. “I’m 40 and I haven’t done anything with my life,” Milk (Sean Penn) laments on his 40th birthday to his lover Scott Smith (James Franco), before his activist days. The film seems to have no interest in Milk’s life prior to this, sparing viewers from potentially tedious biopic renderings like flashbacks to significant periods in his life or his exploration of his own sexuality. The film wisely sticks to just the chapter in Milk’s life that defines his legacy, allowing his actions—via Penn’s performance—to develop the film’s portrait of Milk. His politics is the significant period, his relationships is his sexuality.
It’s a story of San Francisco as much as it is Milk’s, as evidenced by the story beginning with Harvey moving to the city. Settling in the Irish-Catholic Castro neighborhood, he’s greeted with bigotry; as Harvey begins to rally a movement that would transform The Castro into a national haven for gays, he himself begins to transform into a man with a purpose. Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay is careful in making sure that the tale of Milk is never too far off from the tale of his campaigns. His relationship with Scott is told in a way that reflects the sacrifice Harvey has to make in order to further advance the work he’s doing for his constituents, whittling away his devotion to his love to make room for his devotion to the cause.
There’s a big deal of trust in the performances, as the film skips from Harvey and Scott’s first meeting to them being a couple in love, leaving Penn and Franco to sell it with their amazing chemistry. Van Sant establishes their relationship in the most lucid way imaginable, by showing how adorable they are together (the same way he lets Penn’s tender performance demonstrate why the real Milk was so popular). The couple look so cute together, in fact, that Scott disappears for half the movie and still manages to communicate how much they miss each other later on just by popping on screen, without saying a word. Then again, maybe that’s just because Milk’s second lover Jack (Diego Luna) is about as grating as they come. Emotional scenes involving him end up being the worst, most manufactured moments in the film. A more tolerable camp act is Emile Hirsch’s turn as young activist Cleve Jones, his bitchy queen-ness delightfully exaggerated and yet genuine at the same time.
The performances are the film’s main strength, to say the least. Josh Brolin, who straddled the line between charming and reprehensible in W., brings the same quality to Harvey’s would-be killer Dan White, who started off as Harvey’s friend and fellow City Supervisor. Brolin’s White isn’t quite the villain of the film, surprisingly (that role is instead occupied by archive footage of Anita Bryant spewing hateful remarks on TV). Milk provides many reasons for White’s actions—none of them involve Twinkies—from accusing him as a closet homosexual to generating a friendship with Harvey that scars White when it collapses, but doesn’t confirm which drove him off the edge. Milk isn’t interested in the kind of solid narrative most political biopics lean on, but rather in the rounded character study of how the gay rights movement affected people.
Acting as a narrative device, most of the film is told from the perspective of Harvey recording a memoir of his political career, in case he is assassinated. Van Sant took the public knowledge that Milk was murdered and toyed with the common conclusion that when a civil rights activist is murdered, the motive would have something to do with his politics. Milk goes through the motion of providing several tense paranoid scenes in which both Harvey and those in the audience uninformed about his death are driven to a state of suspense—”Is this how he’s going to die?” Van Sant made sure that anticipation is mutual between the audience and the character: When Harvey talks about his eventual death early in the film, a footage of the real press conference that announced Milk’s death intrudes, affecting the film by acknowledging its fixed ending.
Milk isn’t as navel-gazing as Van Sant’s auteur works like Elephant or Gerry, but it’s not quite as exoteric as inspirational stories like Good Will Hunting was either. There’s something a little crude and ambiguous about Milk. The best thing about the film is that it lets the emotions of the characters carry the movie, which is more refreshing than a movie trying to expound and relay Harvey Milk’s message would have been.
"Milk" opens November 28, 2008 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Dustin Lance Black. Starring Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, James Franco.