Biopics are tricky things. Filmmakers who undertake them are required to balance narrative flow with documented real-life experiences.
They often take liberties with the truth, distorting or shaping it to help them reach a means to the film’s end. Biopics are fact seen through the gauze of fiction.
The best biopics locate an epic dramatic sweep within their subjects — think David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia or Richard Attenborough’s Ghandi — while even the more outlandish entries into the genre (anything by Oliver Stone) still manage to not only inform us about their chosen subjects but fully, deeply engage our interest.
So where does that leave Milk, the biopic of Harvey Milk from director Gus Van Sant? Somewhere in the middle.
Van Sant is an idiosyncratic filmmaker, an individualist who in his brief 20-year career has produced works of genius (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) and works that border on the unwatchable (Gerry, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues). You never quite know what you’re getting with a Van Sant movie — and that is part of the fun. But in taking on an iconic figure such as Harvey Milk — the first openly-gay elected official in America, whose assassination in November of 1978 provided him a martyr-like status for a civil-rights battle being waged today more fiercely than ever — Van Sant wades into waters beyond his abilities.
That’s not to say he does a bad job with Milk. He does a cautious job. And Van Sant’s own innate, stylistic detachment — his films aren’t really what one would call warm, fuzzy, emotive affairs — keeps Milk from attaining its full potential as a rousing, rich drama. It’s 2 percent when it should be whole.
Nonetheless, that 2 percent comes in the form of Sean Penn, who vanishes into the role of Harvey Milk so completely that you forget you’re watching a star. Penn is like Meryl Streep in that regard — able to transcend his own persona and convincingly become someone else. Few actors can manage this effectively — even fewer with a figure specifically drawn from history. There’s never a moment you don’t doubt he’s Milk. Penn is the film’s binding, its transforming force, and he makes up for the weak spots in Van Sant’s directing.
Many of the problems with Milk are structural. Van Sant can’t seem to decide on a tone. He opens strongly with archival footage of a bar bust as gay men, faces covered in shame, are herded into police vans. The movie quickly establishes the relationship between Milk and Scott Smith (James Franco, marvelously understated and looking like a ’70s porn star), and their move from New York to San Francisco, where the 40-year-old Harvey is galvanized into political action. The early portion of the movie documents Milk’s relentless and ultimately victorious political fight to get elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. The latter half documents Milk’s efforts to quash Proposition 6, a nasty little bill that would have outlawed gays from teaching in public school.
The Proposition 6 fight brings the movie to life, and Van Sant, who utilizes archival news footage throughout Milk, uses it to best effect here, with shots of Anita Bryant leading her moral crusade against homosexuality. We’re not only watching a turning point in the gay movement, but the birth of a Moral Majority nation.
In light of the recent events in California, which passed Proposition 8, overturning the state’s acceptance of gay marriage, Milk‘s historical importance cannot be underestimated. The movie, which is more politically motivated than it is dramatically solvent, can be viewed not only as a rallying cry, but as a reminder that there is a better way to fight the enemy, and that’s by not shying away from one’s gay roots. Harvey makes his Proposition 6 fight about people — gay people, specifically. There is never an instant where Milk wavers in his pride as a homosexual man.
Where Milk falters is in stronger development in the relationship between Milk and Dan White (Josh Brolin), the smoldering, homophobic supervisor who killed not only Milk but San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). There is no enlightenment into White’s character, at least not beyond the surface variety, and it robs the climactic assassination of its full, dramatic potential.
Brolin’s performance, moreover, is far too one-dimensional, but this is probably the fault of Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay, which tries to be all things to all people and ends up being scattershot and underdeveloped. Movies like Brokeback Mountain have a narrative arch and muscular dramatic build. Milk has forward momentum, but little else, as it tries to pack in too much in the way of history and politics.
Van Sant restrains himself from deploying signature touches — though there is one involving a phone, Milk’s protégé Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) and a gaggle of shirtless, chattering boys. It feels out of place. Van Sant wavers in tone between documentary and drama and it’s this uncertainty with how to handle the material that short-circuits Milk‘s overall impact. It may be that Van Sant, who is gay, was so in awe of the subject matter, so overwhelmed by the task at hand, that he simply couldn’t cope. He couldn’t be Gus Van Sant — he had to be respectful of the subject matter — so his filmmaking personality scatters itself here, there, everywhere.
A colleague offered an interesting observation: Van Sant chooses to shoot the film in earthy, muted, muddy browns. There’s none of the colorful vibrancy that typified the late ’70s and specifically how one might have imagined San Francisco. Visually, the film has a dour, uninviting feel.
Here’s ultimately what will happen: Gay people will flock to Milk and will herald it a classic. They will be galvanized by it, moved by it. Those who lived through the era will remember a time gone by and note, quietly or not, how far we’ve come. Younger gays will learn that, even if the movement isn’t yet where it needs to be, it’s vastly further ahead than it was only 30 years ago. And all will mourn the loss of a gay American hero.
Randy Shulman is senior film critic and Editor-in-Chief at Metro Weekly, a GLBT newsmagazine in metropolitan Washington.