There's a temptation, in reviewing Gus Van Sant's new biopic Milk, to talk about the issue and not the art, the man and not the picture. To be sure, there has seldom been (in recent memory, anyway) a historical film that felt as of-the-moment as this one; its story ends thirty years ago, but it speaks so directly to the Proposition 8 vote in California less than month ago that it feels like a position paper. But that's the danger with a film like this--it's one thing to agree with the message, and another to heap unconditional praise on the messenger.
So it is a bit of a relief to report that Milk is an outstanding film, a vibrant and intelligent recreation of a very particular time and place that throbs with heart and humor and (occasionally) real anger and anguish. It's not a perfect film, to be sure, but it is a powerful one, regardless of what happened in California in November.
Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk, a closeted Republican insurance man who hit 40 and realized that he had done nothing in his life that he "could be proud of." With his young, supportive boyfriend (James Franco) in tow, Milk grew out his hair and moved to San Francisco, where he settled into the predominately gay area around the Castro theatre. From his camera store, Harvey observed the homophobia of area police and even his neighbors, and, before he realized it, had become something of a (pardon the parallel) "community organizer," earning the nickname of "the mayor of Castro Street."
When changes to the voting laws helped Milk become a city supervisor in 1977, he had already tried and failed to win three elections. When the fourth time proved the charm, he became the first openly gay man to hold public office. As with so many agents of change, however, his time was cut short; less than a year into his term, a frustrated former fellow supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin) snuck a gun into City Hall and shot Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) dead. More than 30,000 supporters participated in a candlelight march to mark the passing of the pair.
Since making his most mainstream film to date (Finding Forrester) in 2000, director Van Sant has spent the bulk of the decade making steadily more experimental (and inaccessible) films (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park). While Milk isn't quite Four Christmases in terms of conventional subject matter, it is a bigger-budget Hollywood biography with high production value and name actors. However, Van Sant appears to have taken a page from the Soderbergh playbook and let his low-budget experiments infuse a more playful and daring edge to this more "standard" fare. Throughout the film, Van Sant and his expert cinematographer Harris Savides use a free-wheeling and intimate visual style with great effectiveness; indeed, the first half-hour of the film is as much a free-form tone poem as it is a biography, cleverly interweaving still photos, archival footage, and unexpected camerawork to evoke the Castro in the early 70s.
Dustin Lance Black's screenplay is efficient and mostly successful, packing plenty of information into the film's dense 128 minutes; it does get a little slick and surface late in the second act (and there is a fair amount of the too-on-the-nose dialogue that seems to plague all biopics), but recovers beautifully as it moves inevitably into the unfortunate events of November 27, 1978. Also worth noting is the fine work of editor Elliot Graham, whose expert use of documentary footage nicely compliments the immediacy of Van Sant's direction (and will hopefully point interested parties to the excellent, Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk ).
Performances are sure-handed across the board. Franco is an actor who is growing on me, the further he gets from his terrible work in the Spider-Man films; much of the emotion of the film's climax rests on how he says "I'm proud of you," and he absolutely nails it. Emile Hirsch, another actor whose fan club I've avoided, brings spirit and energy to the role of Milk's protégé (and future AIDS activist) Cleve Jones, while Alison Pill's Anne Kronenberg is whip-smart and consistently engaging. Denis O'Hare does a nicely smarmy turn (he's becoming the go-to guy for such roles) as loathsome State Senator John Briggs, who spearheaded Prop 6, while Josh Brolin turns in yet another rich, finely-tuned performance as White (is this guy on a hot streak or what?). But Sean Penn's is the showcase performance here, praised from all quarters and rightly so, a marvelous piece of work from an actor so consistently and expectedly good that we have a tendency to take him for granted. No chance here--this is a performance that is undoubtedly a lock for at least a nomination come Oscar time.
As mentioned, Milk has its flaws--it is occasionally too slick, it falls into some of the biography film traps, Diego Luna's character is underdeveloped, and its framing device (while based in fact) feels a little too neat, structurally speaking. But it is an important, powerful, and moving film, and offers plenty of insight to a struggle that goes on to this very moment. Highly Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.