There's a temptation, in reviewing Gus Van Sant's 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 last fall 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 Paul Blart: Mall Cop 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 it 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--a fate fortunately avoided at last month's Oscars.
To be sure, Milk has its flaws--it is occasionally too structurally slick, it falls into some of the biography film traps, and Diego Luna's character is grossly underdeveloped. Its framing device, in which Milk tells his story into a tape recorder, doesn't quite play; while it is based in fact, it feels a little too neat, structurally speaking. It allows Black's screenplay to get lazy too often, letting Harvey tell rather than making Van Sant show. But these are minor quibbles, and certainly not substantial enough to detract from the picture's tremendous overall impact.
Universal's 1080p transfer of Milk uses the VC-1 codec, and it is a very faithful representation of the film's theatrical experience, though certainly not a demo disc for the power of the Blu-ray format. Cinematographer Savides recreates the era with the help of a muted color palette, older lenses, and the grainier-than-average Kodak Vision 500T 5279 film stock. As a result, the 1.85:1 image shows some noticeable grain and looks occasionally washed-out, although those same qualities help the new scenes mix more smoothly with the wealth of archival footage (one minor complaint: some of the 4:3 newsreel footage is stretched unattractively into the widescreen frame; one wishes they'd have just pillared the image instead, as in the faux-home movie sequence with Penn and Franco early in the film). The image is crisp and detailed, with black levels slightly above average. Overall, it's an accurate, if not mind-blowing, transfer.
The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track also offers little in the way of fireworks, though it's certainly appropriate for the film. Milk is a dialogue-heavy picture, so the center channel does the bulk of the work and does it well; the channel is crisp and always audible, if set a little lower than average, volume-wise. Danny Elfman's effective score is well-modulated in the front surround speakers, but the rear surrounds only truly come to life during the rowdy street march and rally sequences.
English, Spanish, and French subtitles are also available.
The disc is a little light on extras, particularly considering the wealth of supplemental material available on its subject; perhaps it's safe to assume that interested viewers will seek out the aforementioned Times of Harvey Milk. What we get here are three featurettes, all presented in 1080i HD and 2.0 stereo.
"Remembering Harvey" (13:21) briefly captures the memories of some of Milk's contemporaries, though it strangely uses footage and stills from the film instead of the actual events. "Hollywood Comes to San Francisco" (14:32) is more focused on the film itself; it's a fairly standard mix of interviews, clips, and behind-the-scenes stills and footage, though it does have some terrific insights into Van Sant's working methods. Finally, "Marching For Equality" (7:58) highlights the shooting of the film's street march recreations, with the help of Cleve Jones and other activists present at the original marches.
The disc is also BD-Live enabled, with viewers offered the option to select and share favorite scenes from the film.
Milk has a few minor flaws, but none that detract from its considerable power, undeniable skill, and unquestionable timeliness. It is an intelligent, important, and moving film, and offers plenty of insight to a struggle that continues to this very moment.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and 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. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.