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Film Review: Milk

Milk (2008; Directed by Gus Van Sant)

I will break with the arthouse orthodoxy on this one and declare my opinion on Gus Van Sant’s widely-praised and award-showered Milk to be decidedly mixed. And more than anything, the single element that pushed me to a middling review is the one that was most widely praised: Sean Penn’s Oscar-winning performance as Harvey Milk.

I’ll give the film credit where it’s due. Van Sant’s painstaking re-creation of the gay hub of Castro Street in 1970s San Francisco is magnificent, mixing archival footage with period dressings and cinematographer Harris Savides’ vibrant but gritty colour palette. The combination of passion and desperation that drove the gay political movement in the ’70s is given a full and powerful voice throughout as well.

There are many good supporting performances, from Emile Hirsch’s whip-smart Cleve Jones to James Franco’s laid-back dreamer Scott Smith. Josh Brolin’s Dan White steals his allotted slice of the film, even though he must contend with a flippant and simplistic suggestion that his character was a closeted homosexual and committed the assassinations of Milk and Mayor Moscone out of some transmuted sense of sexual rejection. Despite this conceit, Brolin layers in a complex portrayal of a traditional American man who feels the earth shifting beneath his feet and can find no one to throw him a life-preserver. It’s a further step forward from his brash George W. Bush, and marks him as an actor doing some of the best work out there right now.

But I just can’t quite get behind Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk or the corny feel-good progressivism the film sees him as representing. Penn is what he is and makes no compromises: he’s the bete-noire of the anti-Hollywood right-wing and will not shift his feet from where he stands, no matter how much the wingnuts grind their gears. But he’s still overrated as an actor, his most-praised performances coming off as invariably self-serious propaganda for inclusiveness swathed in distracting mannerisms and affectations. I have no doubt that, on the surface, Milk came off very much as Penn portrays him here, but the depths go unsounded.

Part of that is the doing of Dustin Lance Black’s script (also an Oscar-winner), which turns Harvey Milk into a pure embodiment of the gay rights movement. Though Van Sant shows us upheavals in his personal life, he barely flinches in the face of them: the cause is all. His martyrdom becomes all that much more Christ-like as Harvey Milk embodies the movement, and his murder becomes a synecdoche for all of the myriad malevolent forces that sought to repress gays. It’s all too tidy and hardly challenging. Shrewd political gamesmanship was a key part of Milk’s impact on the gay rights initiative, and his sharp eye for media spectacle is elided here. There’s inherent conventional-biopic drama in the narrative arc of Milk’s political journey, but the technical elements and spirited portrayals distract from how plodding and telegraphed Van Sant’s deployment of this drama is. Milk‘s content – gay life and its social challenges – and its rich vein of current-affairs applicability lends the film a masque of risque iconoclasm and edgy cultural chic that Van Sant’s unimaginative aesthetic approach doesn’t fully earn on its own.

With all of this seeking to hold him back, it’s perhaps laudable that Penn finds the strength to soldier on and make his Harvey Milk into a human being at all. But in the same year as an iconic comedic film (Ben Stiller’s keen satire Tropic Thunder) honed in mercilessly on Penn’s smug liberal appropriation of a minority identity in I Am Sam, it seems cognitively-dissonant to invest such immense merit in a performance of his that operates on the same basic methodology that was being viciously (and accurately) satirized. Cultural circumstances conspired to make Milk (and Milk) into the first spear of today’s gay rights struggles, and its profile became inflated as a result. But it behooves me to state that one can be a full supporter of gay rights (of human rights, ultimately) without likewise being of the opinion that Milk is a great film. And, to my mind, the way Van Sant’s film so thoroughly melds both its subject and ultimately itself with the gay rights movement is a big reason why it fails to be great.

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