Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Lucas Grabeel
Director: Gus van Sant
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
While likely never by design, Milk comes to the wider filmmaking market at a startling prescient point in history which adds further weight to its message and attaches a sense of pessimism for modern life with yet further hindsight allowed. A film which focuses on likely the most famous political figures in the gay rights movement, a centrepiece of which was his defeat of Proposition 4 in California which would have allowed gay teachers to be fired over their homosexuality, comes to us amid the recent failure of modern California to beat Proposition 8 which took away the right for homosexuals in the state to be married. Whether Gus van Sant and Dustin Lance Black meant for this to occur is highly questionable but you cannot watch Milk with that knowledge in mind and not feel anger and disappointment, maybe even falling far enough into philosophical cliché to consider how far we have not come.
Although that’s the thought that comes through, and certainly provides much of the power to the film on any external level, it doesn’t feel like the purpose. Van Sant seems mostly to be looking to explore the life not only of Harvey Milk himself in California in the 1970s, but also the environment experience as a homosexual in that period of time. It’s structured in three primary acts, defined by the single relationships he harbours during those times.
The first, and most effective of them all, is the earlier, formative part of his political and activist career and relationship with Scott Smith (James Franco) where the drive to become the figure he would later be comes through everyday experience, fighting for little but important issues for homosexuals in and around his life and aiming to build bridges with the wider community. The relationship between the two seems one of equals, two intelligent and passionate people who worked to find time for each other while also trying to support the movement. Those cracks begin to show as the first act closes and Scott’s departure is key in Milk’s life. Never however does it lose the atmosphere of their time together, all quiet and respectful of each other, the kind of relationship that the majority of people want to experience, while their intimate moments and sensual and sexy, van Sant filming with his usual dream-like quality but entirely unafraid to place us right inside those most intimate times. The performances by both Penn and Franco during those scenes warrant Oscars on their own, subtle and loving and entirely convincing as a secure pair.
The second act then follows the beginning of difficulties in his life as Milk succumbs to the less challenging company of Diego Luna, his other key relationship. Luna’s Jack Lira represents an entirely different side of relationships to Franco’s Smith. He’s unstable and politically inactive but doesn’t provide any threat or difficulty to Milk during his off-hours from his increasingly fraught and stressful political career. As this relationship grows, so too does Milk’s success as a political figure, maybe because he is able to focus on it without having to bring it into his home. Yet his spirit seems to be sapping during these portion of the film. Again, the sex scenes between Penn and Luna work well in grasping the different type of relationship he has, far less intimate and much more lustful and concerned with minimal-strings fucking. Luna though derails certain points of the film with his performance. He never manages to access anything beneath the surface of his troubled character and eventually paints a two-dimensional sketch of an important piece of the puzzle in understanding Milk and the progression of his life.
The final portion of the film then focuses on the combative relationship between Milk and rival councilman Josh Brolin’s Dan White, the man who would eventually become Milk’s killer. White himself could have been played as such a monstrous creation, a rampant homophobe and ignoramus who wanted only to prevent the rise of homosexuality in his city. Instead, Brolin plays him with a degree of empathy, trying to portray an essentially good man who could not understand the evolution of the world around him and struck out to try and stop such change. He is a family man and seems almost a reluctant hater of Milk’s cause, unable also to play the political game with the same sense of ruthlessness that Milk himself can access. White couldn’t quite access that kind of skill in getting what he wanted and making deals, finally succumbing to the pressures he felt to try and ‘protect’ his family and community from the rising power of homosexuals in the city.
Milk doesn’t quite manage to sidestep all the problems that normally come with biopics, primarily the issue that the audience, if it has any knowledge of the man, knows precisely where the film is going. How they get there is mixed. Van Sant does imprint some personality on the storytelling style, meaning that his avoid being a basis A-B story of a life. But the scenes with Luna do derail portions of the film and the probing of Milk’s psyche is not done as well as Van Sant attempted in Last Days, a flawed but more meditative and ultimately investigative attempt to understand the motivations of its lead character. The performances are, excepting Luna and in certain parts Emile Hirsch, uniformly great. Penn is astonishing, inhabiting the character and pulling off both the intimate moments and the rallying speeches with aplomb. His Milk is a gentle man but a ruthless politician, a perfect combination for any cause, and Penn’s creates a character that would be welcomed with open arms into the gay rights movement of modern times. Franco is brilliant and calm as Smith, playing his role with restrained emotion and intelligence while Brolin gives extra dimensions to a character which could have been an uninteresting monster. Also worth mentioning is Alison Pill as Milk’s latter campaign manager who bring a youthful knowingness and realism to her role beyond her years. Van Sant’s direction is beautiful, a more successful combination of the ethereal qualities of his indie pictures (Elephant, Paranoid Park) with a mainstream style than Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester in the past, while the cinematography by Harris Savides (a regular Van Sant collaborator and shooter of Zodiac) is stately yet character-filled, adding to the picture while only occasionally drawing attention.
A worthy film and certainly one with modern relevance, Milk may well shine an unfavourable light on the modern gay rights movement, but it also serves its audience on a wider political level, concerning itself with another charismatic and optimistic politician looking to unite the American people in a style not far removed from the rhetoric espoused by Barack Obama. It’s a brilliant film on many levels and, if it never really gives a full understanding of the personal motivations of Milk, it doesn’t really need to and therefore becomes essential viewing for anyone interested seeking a biopic which doesn’t fall headlong into cliché and presents a character worth mourning.