Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk
Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones
Josh Brolin as Dan White
Diego Luna as Jack Lira
James Franco as Scott Smith
Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg
Victor Garber as Mayor George Moscone
Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.
The last half is the year is a stand alone time for biography films to be released. The healthy award season is filled with the life stories, usually quite empowering and dramatically overwhelming, of people like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and Truman Capote. The list grows ever more by adding Harvey Milk, a politician who I did not know much about prior to the film and did not realize the massive effect that he had on the world today. The relevancy of a film like "Milk" is all too clear at the moment, especially with the passing of Prop. 8 merely a month ago, and it could be a perfectly fine argument why such a bill is a big step backwards from everything Harvey Milk spent his forties trying to move ahead.
In the 70's, Harvey Milk-turning forty and lamenting his lack of achievements in any aspects of his life at this point-picks up younger man Scott Smith (James Franco) in a train station. The two of them move in with one another, and decide to open a shop underneath their San Francisco apartment, but at soon rooted out by several members of the public that scowl at the thought of open homosexuality. Harvey soon finds himself in politics, running nearly four times before finally winning the position of City Supervisor. Each lose just makes him more determined to get to the top, at the cost of Scott who begins to wonder if politics is more important than their relationship. Harvey begins to recruit the gay community to form a massive fanbase, including the nerdish Cleve Jones, a female manager in the form of Anne Kronenberg, and Jack Lira, who ends up being another love interest for Harvey during the beginning of his term in office. And once in office, Harvey has to deal with Dan White, one of the few members of the party actually against homosexuality, and the only vote that usually is "nay" during various positions being passed. Part of a conventional family and Christian upbringing, Dan can discuss being anti-gay in terms of homosexuals not being able to reproduce, but Harvey has his own suspicions.
"Milk" is directed by Gus Van Sant, an infamously independant filmmaker who is somewhat of a critic's darling. My relationship with Van Sant is highly strained, as I hardly got past works like "Elephant," "Last Days," and "Paranoid Park," which somewhat form a trilogy of films involving various types of social isolation. When he writes his films, I find them tedious, empty, and highly underwritten. As if Van Sant believes he is making a highly broad and groundbreaking comment on society and teenagers, but trying to stretch out a five minute story into ninety minutes at the same time. However, here he works with someone else's material, and much like "Good Will Hunting" manages to focus on one aspect of filmmaking instead of two, ironically creating a more personal work than his previous films ended up being. Behind the camera, I found "Milk' to be a more polished film than his other works, a bit more conventional in style, but its still better than the pretentiousness he usually fills his films with. At times Van Sant tries a few visual tricks here that did not agree with me, such as a few moments which consist of a series of still photographs to move the image along, but when he stays away from style and visual flair, he manages to create several stimulating compositions, often saying much about a character by simply lingering on them for a few seconds longer than the shot needs.
Dustin Lance Black's script does at times tread into the formula for a biography film, only Black decides to work within the confines of a certain time frame, which is a strength rather than a weakness. We virtually know nothing about Harvey Milk's past, only working with his 40's, and about an hour in his late 30's at the very beginning. The only hint is a moment where Harvey speculates on the homosexuality of Dan White, stating that "he's been in the closet, for longer than he wishes, and it hurt." I did like the higher attention to dimensions that Black gives to the characters, which makes them come out of the screen more than some other conventional biopics which treat their subjects in obvious ways-films such as "Ray" or "Walk the Line" felt mildly forced and almost cookie cutter biopics. Some choices, like making the film a flashback as Harvey Milk talks into a tape recorder to record something "in the case of death by assassination," are a bit padded, and provide for a rather pointless narration that sometimes takes away from the flow of the film as a whole.
While the direction and screenplay are adequate, and the music by Danny Elfman is playfully majestic and haunting, the real flawless section of "Milk' comes from the nearly perfect performance by Sean Penn, who is giving some his best work since the massively under seen "The Assassination of Richard Nixon." Penn is able to mend the wounds of "All the King's Men," another politically charged film, and delve into Harvey Milk. In some moments, Penn expresses so much by saying so little. I can bring attention to the moment earlier, where he discusses Dan White and briefly touches upon his past "in the closet." Penn brings so much sadness and memory into that line that volumes and questions about Harvey Milk's past suddenly come into play-an aspect that is hardly thought about during his tumultuous ride in politics.
The rest of a great cast round out the film, with Emile Hirsch delivering a better performance than his mildly overrated "Into the Wild" performance from last year. James Franco gives his second best performance of the year, the other clearly being "Pineapple Express." At times he seemed mildly awkward, and I think my preference for his work in the other film is that I think the stoned slacker fits him almost like a glove.
Lastly there is Josh Brolin, as Dan White, who is also on a hot streak with "W." just coming out last month. After the film was over, it struck me that Brolin does not have a strong amount of dialogue here, and many of his scenes consist of his paranoia and inner demons that churn from several things-his possible homosexuality could be one of them, eventually resulting in a tragic circumstance which I will not reveal, although a mere google of the name "Harvey Milk" will reveal what that circumstance was.
In the end, while there is a lot of admire in "Milk," most of which is Sean Penn's performance, I still have yet to see a "great biopic." They often provide to be an interesting two hours, sometimes mildly repetitive in terms of creating drama, and usually have one or two great performances. But they often fail to have a certain personal touch that could perhaps simply be because its a representation of a life, which is sometimes the hardest thing to bring to the screen. It's something that has to transcend a great actor, a great screenplay, or a great director, and while I am entertained by biopics, and "Milk" does stand out from a great many of them, I still have yet to be effectively moved or inspired by one. However, Sean Penn manages to elevate "Milk' from a conventional biopic film, giving me a higher perspective into the character, the person, and the historical figure that was Harvey Milk.