A couple of months ago, I expressed an optimistic excitement for the Harvey Milk biopic that recently came out. Having now seen the movie, I thought I'd clarify my disappointment.
Milk isn't a terrible movie--it's not even a bad movie--but it's nowhere near the level of gay masterpiece I hoped it would be. It's a conventional, unambiguous rallying cry with no real impact.
Gus Van Sant has done some very original, highly stylized, downright weird films in the past decade. My Own Private Idaho was Shakespeare's world populated by gay prostitutes, with still life sex scenes and split screens and over-the-top dialogue; Psycho was a more surreal (and more scandalous) shot-for-shot replay of the Hitchcock original; Elephant was a hyper-realistic photograph of teenage violence starring no-name high school actors; and so on. His most conventional film was Good Will Hunting, but that at least was moving and had momentum, as well as a terrific soundtrack. Milk is just plain standard. Each character--though based on real people--can be summed up in a simple sentence, such as Emile Hirsch's Cleve Jones, the tenacious queer who... well, I don't even need a full sentence. That's about it.
Sean Penn is convincing and sweet as the 40-year-old New York insurance man who realizes how boring his life is and decides to head west and make an impact. He seems to settle on a life of gay political activism simply because it's the most convenient; the attention, the theatrics, and the social bonding seem almost as important--if not more so--than the actual revolution.
Which is an interesting idea, but not one that the movie really allows you to dwell on. Milk, with its fast-paced biopic structure (here's one important event... then here's another one a year later... then a close friend dies... and then there's a small triumph... and then...) and its attention to political activism, wants to be a cry for equality, not a complex, ambiguous character study. Harvey is reduced to the role of hero, champion, martyr. You're not allowed to be skeptical of his background, his relationships, his motivation, his manipulative methods. You know he's the good guy because he's on the side of equality--the ends justify the means and all that--and so you have to root for him, and that's that.
But I don't enjoy that. I like rooting for villains. I like feeling sorry for the assholes. I like believing, even for just one turbulent moment, that what the psycho killer is saying makes perfect sense. And I can't stand a flawless hero. I can't stand being forced to side with someone.
And as for Harvey Milk as portrayed in this film--well, he just wasn't that inspirational. Look, I'm queer and I'm liberal and all of that. It's a subject that's very close to me. Plus, I'm a sucker for inspiration, and I cry several times a year in movie theaters. But his speeches and his rallies never made me feel anything other than mildly interested on an intellectual level. The bad direction is part of that--the cinematography choices were dreadful, with very little camerawork standing out as exceptional. With each march and protest, a still camera looks head-on at the faces of the few stars as they march forward. Why? If we're supposed to be immersed in the riot, to feel like we're a part of it, why would be facing the rioters? Why would we be so still? Why not throw the camera into the action, shakily following behind the other marchers? But there's none of that.
Maybe Van Sant was trying to prove that gay people are just as normal and boring as straight people, that their inspirational biopics can be just as color-by-numbers and boring as straight biopics. But who wants to see that? Harvey was loud--"My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you!"--Harvey was theatrical. The gay movement at that time loved to shout out loud. So why such a stifling story?
There's only one aspect of the film that's interesting, and that's the relationship between Harvey Milk and Dan White (Josh Brolin, in a fine performance), the straight-laced police officer and political rival. Their awkward dance is compelling--Dan "the man" tries to please and work with, however distantly, his minority colleague, while Harvey desires only to destroy the competitor who represents everything he detests and opposes. Dan keeps promises that Harvey breaks. Dan drunkenly stumbles in the shadows of his fading conservative beliefs--beliefs he doesn't even necessarily understand or trust anymore--while Harvey milks up the limelight. It's a sad and scary battle of wits, and one that paints a dark, political tinge on the otherwise spotless Harvey, but the theme is confined to a few short scenes and left largely unexplored.
As a movie focusing strictly on Dan vs. Harvey, this could have been a good film, but by expanding this into an eight-year-long historical examination of how great San Francisco is and how wonderful and downtrodden gay people always are, the movie strays into the realm of simple, sweeping statements. I'm disappointed by how much critical acclaim this film is getting; aside from Penn and Brolin it's rather lackluster.
d: Gus Van Sant w: Dustin Lance Black
(Sean Penn, Josh Brolin)