Editor’s Note: For any readers who are not familiar with the true story of Harvey Milk and would not like to have it spoiled for them, some of this article does include spoilers.
In the wake of California’s Proposition 8, a film like Milk is both socially relevant and an eerie reminder of how this nation hasn’t really progressed in the past 30 years. Sure, we have an African-American president-elect and homosexuals aren’t nearly as persecuted as they once were (in the sense that you can’t be fired legally for being gay), but the words of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) are still yet to be fulfilled to this day. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have A Dream” speech it took 40 years to see a black man take the highest office. It’s only been 30 years since Harvey Milk’s death, yet the pulpit still battles the rights of men to marry men, women to marry women. The only regret I have about seeing Milk is that it didn’t come out two months earlier, so maybe then a few people would’ve voted to not take away the rights given to homosexuals in California. Maybe they would’ve seen that voting for Proposition 8 didn’t just affect gays at large, but several people they probably knew personally.
Political rant over, let’s get to the movie review, shall we?
Harvey Milk opens the film as a 40 year-old man living in New York who decides to take his younger partner Scott (James Franco) to San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood to open a camera shop. There he decides to run for city council as an openly gay man. His effort would result in him being the first of “his people” to be elected to a major government position. Standing in his way is not only his political rivals, but also the churches with anti-homosexual views (in this film, portrayed by Irish-Catholics) and a national lobby to ban gay rights called “Proposition 6” which has some prominent names behind it.
Gus Van Sant tells the story by mixing archival footage from the ’70s with his work done by cinematographer Harris Savides, a collaborator with Van Sant ever since his 2000 film Finding Forrester. The effect helps make Market St. and the Castro come to life. Van Sant uses lots of techniques used back in those days, like split screens and moving images in a flipbook fashion (or like a strobe light) to set that free-loving vibe. It’s also pretty conventional in many areas as well, making this somewhat of a departure from Van Sant’s heavily indie work like Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. There’s quite a lot of production value, but such is needed in a film about a highly publicized activist.
One aspect of Van Sant’s direction that is lacking is character development. Sure, this is a film called Milk about Harvey Milk, but the ensemble is so under-developed that a lot of pressure is put on Penn to carry the film.
Luckily, Penn does an outstanding job as Harvey Milk. It’s cliche to say so, but Penn disappears into the role with total comfort and ease. He’s not the sourpuss we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in movies like Mystic River or in real life being the annoying Liberal answer to a question no one asked. Here he’s vibrant and charming; sensitive and strong in his values; determined and passionate in his speech. He will be nominated for an Oscar for sure and will more than likely walk away with his second golden guy. The only qualm I have with Penn’s performance is during his public speeches you can see him going into “imitation” mode and leaves behind the characterization of Harvey Milk that he created to match one that befits Milk’s ACTUAL mannerisms and intonation.
His supporting cast is strong and they do a lot with what they have to work. Josh Brolin and James Franco get the most screen-time as Milk’s political counter-part and partner/lover/campaign manager, respectively. Brolin gets saddled with an under-written character and makes Dan White a fully-dysfunctional human being, not just the animal that we will find out exists. Franco’s Scott is the true love of Harvey’s life yet also the moral center of the film. He wants so badly to stand by his man, but just can’t handle the pressures of a highly political life. Franco’s subtlety shows us glimpses of the truly good actor he can be when he’s not relegated to blockbuster crap like Spider-Man 3 or Annapolis.
Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna also show up in largely underwhelming roles (though not underwhelming performances, the distinction matters). Hirsch’s character is a guy we’re supposed to take seriously as an activist yet basically all we see him do is make funny facial expressions. There are a couple quieter scenes where we get to see Hirsch’s range, but they are too few and far-between. Luna’s performance is a slap-in-the-face. He’s the over-dramatic sloppy seconds for Harvey and ends up being a catalyst for the main character. Luna’s presence does very little to advance the storyline or make Harvey a more dynamic character. He, like so many characters in the film, are a blip, and I feel that there are some really solid performances resting comfortably on someone’s cutting-room floor.
Dustin Lance Black’s script is unfortunate. I hate to say that Milk is your paint-by-numbers biopic, but unfortunately it is. There was ample opportunity to make this something more. Had Black given us more of what drives Dan White, what makes Hirsch’s Cleve Jones tick, or why Luna’s Jack is so needy, it could’ve helped create more of a well-rounded story. Instead, this is just a story about Harvey Milk. Yes, the man is an activist and it’s important to see his rise and various struggles, plus he’s the central character being portrayed by one of the most dynamic actors of our generation. I understand why it was a film about Milk, but this could’ve been a great ensemble piece. Van Sant does a nice job of giving us a feel for what life in San Francisco is like in the ’70s; Black doesn’t live up to his end of the deal by fleshing out the people that inhabit this space. If we wanted just to know about the times of Harvey Milk, we could rent The Times of Harvey Milk (documentary from 1984)!
Black’s script gives Penn lots to do, but it doesn’t do justice to telling us the story behind his life. Biopics fall into this trap quite a bit. 1998’s Man on the Moon had Jim Carrey doing a flawless job of recreating Andy Kaufman’s displayed neuroses, yet didn’t explain them. Jamie Foxx’s Ray showed us a side of Ray Charles many didn’t know about (drug addiction), yet didn’t show us where his musical genius stemmed from. Black gives us everything we can see from looking up Milk’s Wikipedia entry and not much else. He overlooks what could’ve been a more captivating story (Milk v. White) and, on top of it all, rushes the ending.
I will re-state the wonderful work done by cinematographer Harris Savides. His reflection/mirror motif throughout the film gives us a not-so-subtle, yet effective metaphor for each character’s inner struggle. One shot in particular that grabbed me was the reflection of Milk in a rape whistle lying next to a lifeless homosexual who had been beaten to death. Van Sant and Savides could’ve done this shot in a myriad of ways, but this approach was perfect at hammering home the explicit violence we didn’t need to see to believe existed.
Danny Elfman conducts the score and it’s largely forgettable. Though, what’s more important is when the score doesn’t play. There’s a scene where Milk talks to supporters at City Hall which could’ve been drowned out by a heavy score. Instead, Van Sant has no music and conducts the group chatter and large, intermittent swell of applause. The shot mostly frames Milk and the background of three or four supporters’ heads, yet Van Sant and sound editor Brian Dunlop create a fully characterized audience and we don’t even have to see them to know how they feel.
Overall, seeing Milk is important for its political ramifications. But if you’re trying to get away from politics (and who could blame you), Milk is also an enjoyable film featuring one of the best performances of the year. It’s regrettable that Van Sant and writer Black missed some opportunities to really make the film exceptional, but overall I recommend it.