Film review: Milk
Sean Penn deserves his Oscar, but this biopic of America's first gay politician mostly plays it safe, says Fred Rowson
Milk is a film that ends as suddenly as it begins. It is a competently constructed work that tells the true story of the eponymous Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States, beginning with his moving from New York to San Francisco in 1970 and ending with his assassination in 1978. The narrative is boldly and beautifully constructed out of film footage of various different stocks, newspaper clippings, documentary footage, mockumentary footage, campaign posters, news reports, old advertisements, split screens, voiceovers and pop music. Yet, for all of this glitz, Milk is a remarkably safe film. It follows a wilderness period that has arguably lasted the length of director Gus Van Sant's career. His last movie was the frankly unnecessary Paranoid Park (2007), a mercifully short meditation on the life of a young skater boy that managed to retreat into its cinematic fundament after about ten minutes (this is to say nothing Van Sant's notorious 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho). His previous two films were the pseudo-biopics Last Days (2005) and Elephant (2003), both of which kind-of-but-didn't tell the stories of Kurt Cobain's suicide and the Columbine massacre. Both films were widely seen to be sitting, pretentiously, on the fence. All things considered, Van Sant didn't seem the most suitable candidate for directing Milk and, unsurprisingly, he wasn't.
Milk is straight down the line, totally unflinching, optimistic at the beginning, righteous in the middle, a bit sad at the end. It never backs down from its occasionally controversial subject material, but neither does it challenge it, or move beyond anything but a superficial portrayal. Worse, it has an indefensible lack of strong female characters; aside from a token lesbian, the only major female role is that of the antagonist, and this simply isn't acceptable in a film about equality. The film also glosses over the hedonism of the gay scene of San Francisco in the 1970s, and its collateral damage. Ultimately, it portrays Harvey Milk as a character with such zero tolerance for bullshit that it's hard not to feel that he'd be a little insulted at what a conservative film this is. At one point, his boyfriend commits suicide and, after one scene of sobbing, Harvey's back on the campaign trail. An event that should have cast a shadow over the rest of his life is reduced to an illustration in the margin. Gus Van Sant wants your unconditional love for Harvey Milk. Sean Penn helps with this, as his performance - the flick of the hair, the smile that extends to the very back of his mouth - is enrapturing. It's camp, but never descends into caricature. It always feels, however, that Van Sant is getting in the way. Milk's death takes place in view of the San Francisco Opera House, but instead of allowing Penn's performance to speak for itself, Van Sant plays it in operatic slow motion, with arias blaring over the soundtrack.
The film is at its best in its delicate depiction of Dan White - Milk's eventual assassin - who it gently hints is, in fact, a closeted gay man. With this, Van Sant has shied so far from the daring and provocative that he almost achieves a brilliance in subtlety, just not in enough places. He can't seem to decide whether Milk should be a bang or a whimper, and so he aims for somewhere in the middle, and the film ends up like a stuffed parrot - a flamboyant curiosity, that will only offend the most prudish.