Gus Van Sant's Milk opens with grainy, black-and-white footage from the 1970s representing what Van Sant emphasizes as oppression and turmoil: raids of bars frequented by homosexuals, thuggish police harassment and brutality of homosexuals, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black opine was a societally deleterious aspect of that time period. Where the film goes awry, however, is startlingly immediately thereafter: where it chooses to begin its character arc of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). It is the day of his fortieth birthday in 1970. The camera, sedate--but not overtly so, as in Van Sant's oneiric arthouse pictures like Elephant and Paranoid Park--calmly follows Penn's Milk as he walks down the steps in the New York City subway environs. Who is this man? Where does he come from? What drives him? What kind of life has he led? By choosing this moment as the narrative's jumping off point, the film miscalculates. Milk is a businessman, dressing conservatively and is just stepping out of the proverbial closet with regards to his homosexual proclivities. He picks up a younger man named Scott Smith (James Franco) on the steps to the subway. Seconds later, abed eating a birthday cake with one another, Smith tells Milk that the newly-forty-year-old businessman needs a change, a “new scene.” And so they depart for San Francisco, set up a camera shop on Castro Street and briefly live a quiet, uncontroversial life despite their “lifestyle.”
Where the film gradually finds its footing, then, is not in the unadorned interior lives of Milk and Smith, but a little later when the screenplay highlights one political confrontation after another. Yet this admittedly engaging drama whose configuration is derived from one a series of sociopolitical contests, debates and manipulations, cannot grow independently from its roots. Those roots are in no small part faulty—because the film's mistaken point of beginning undermines the stakes about which almost all of the characters ceaselessly speak. Without providing the contextual foundation from which Milk could have become a possibly great and important film. Namely, where did Milk truly come from before finding Smith, and his new life and new cause (he occasionally talks about his—obviously?—heterosexual parents and both the impact and lack thereof they had on his life); how did he live with himself as a closeted gay man? (Smith confronts Milk much later in the film when the San Francisco political avatar devises the game plan of having homosexuals tell everyone they know, and, perhaps most importantly, everyone who knows them, about their sexuality, about the hypocrisy of the formerly closeted Milk almost demanding widespread self-outing of his followers to all, including their family members.) What demons did Milk have to live with, having endured several different past lovers whose experiences with him were marred by suicidal tendencies? (He once vocally blames himself for this, deriding his own past closeted existence and unwillingness to be entirely emotionally available in his relationships.) How did Milk's past truly influence his—in the context of the film's narrative—“present”? (Milk suggests to his San Francisco Supervisor staffers that he detects a fear from fellow San Francisco Supervisor Dan White that indicates he's living a lie as Milk had: “I know what it's like to live that life, that lie. I can see it in Dan's eyes.”)
Honestly, it is only commendable and chiefly a testament to one of Penn's finest performances, marked by almost compulsive magnetism, that the film manages to be as successful as it is in its stirring of interest in the political gamesmanship and electorally internecine wars it depicts from such an unwieldy provenance. It is here where Milk rallies back. At the forty-five minute mark Dan White (Josh Brolin, yet again exceptionally deepening a highly difficult, challenging but meaty role) enters, and in many ways the film becomes a morality play, with the traditionalist White willing to play ball with Milk in exchange for certain beneficial helpings of political back-scratching. Indeed, one attribute the film boasts is the trajectory on which potential back-scratching quickly becomes back-stabbing. Brolin's sensitivity and euphoniously calibrated vocal pattterns stitches together an identifiably human curvature. Brolin's White behaves in a manner that would not be inappropriate for the older, faintly more volatile older brother of Milk, frequently reaching the limits of his patience with the fellow supervisor. A scene set in a Catholic Church, with White's son being christened, allows not merely the integuments of cross-cultural fracases formed not necessarily out of mere, easily-dismissed and overused broad brushes of “ignorance” and “bigotry” but orthodoxy spanning millennia. It is a fairly well-rounded scene, though Van Sant's insistence of making White's wife sound shrewish when she questions the propriety of discussing matters pertinent to the homosexual movement inside the church detracts a little from the crystallizing portraiture of men of different backgrounds and beliefs briefly working together.
Milk was known as a singularly happy man, always beaming, his smile an open invitation to join in the apparent fun. Judging by multiple real-life sources and witnesses, this exterior matched the reality, as Milk was primarily a content and quite well-adjusted individual (upending the ironic stereotype of the “angry gay activist”). Van Sant's picture delivers with anomalous intensity a political statement, as elemental as the fierce subliminal connection between the titular MILK and its undeniable cryptographic summoning of the similar MLK. Milk is presented as political activist and leader to the extent to which it becomes confinement for the man as film character. However, having opted for this trenchant but not truly didactically reductive course of storytelling, Van Sant makes the political as personal as he probably believes he can get away in a film whose framework is not unfamiliar.
The wonted structure of the “bio-pic,” as such, then, must finally be viewed through the prism of the picture's success quotient. Harry Savides, whose cinematography for last year's Zodiac ably captured an era in San Francisco returns to the city, this time working with greater attention to detail derived from Van Sant's recurring use of stock footage from the time period. Franco is able to transcend his role as Milk's lover, supporter and emotionally taxed anchor. Think of any film with the devoted wife driven away from her crusading husband and the dichotomy becomes instantly comprehended. Diego Luna, who plays Milk's rebound partner after Smith finally leaves him, is not given the opportunity to afford his part much in the way of depth. Brolin's turn is also limited but quite impressively enlivened by an actor visibly hungry for his next dauntingly stimulating role. Emile Hersch is wonderfully unrecognizable as Cleve Jones, a homosexual youth who finds newfound inspiration in Milk. And Penn is dominant without being preeminent; his frequent laughs, grins and eye-twinkling compliments to friends and foes alike make his characterization entirely winning. It is unmistakably the performance that rightly vehiculates the film's very heart, carrying a kind of torch the viewer periodically must struggle to follow amidst the multitudinous strands of political intrigue and electoral battle.
One intriguing avenue on which to experience Milk is the connective tissue that may or may not exist between the narrative's depiction of heated political trickery and manipulation and the filmic layers of trickery and manipulation artists such as Van Sant are inclined to employ. On one night of great importance, Milk devises a plan to have Jones instigate something nearing a riot in the Castro District of San Francisco, only to intervene and stop the “show-riot” from genuinely occurring. Likewise, Van Sant's manipulative gestures are finally made overwrought in the final stretch of the movie, most especially in the assassination of Milk. Having enjoyed Tosca and hearing the fat lady sing, so too does the openly gay city supervisor kneel, his face reflected in the window through which he can see the San Francisco Opera House, which is indeed across the long street of Van Ness from City Hall. What should be mercilessly fast is made angelically slow. Nevertheless, Penn's final piece of facial movement is a sight to behold, just as is his entire leading turn. Whether or not Van Sant—steeped as he is in the vagaries of independent, artsy cinema—is making a direct comment about such mainstream inclinations or submitting to them, one cannot be definitely certain.
Milk deserves credit for other, more utilitarian benefits. In an era imbued with fixation upon the national and global, this film reels the audience's potentially jumbled conception of political advocacy and activism too often overlooks the basic, often unsexy but typically more valuable playing field of locality and almost parochial grassroots concern. Milk values such strides, and keenly draws the attention of those determined to change things to look back on their own turf, so to speak—their own haunts, their own backyard. Whether it be a boycott of Coors or initiatives that spring from the polis, what Milk demonstrably showcases is the vitality of local governance. That does not mean that even at such territorial settings politics is a clean business. Powerful machines, such as one which Milk targets, aim to remain politically unassailable. Machiavellian strategies and rigorously taut compromises are normally a necessity. And alliances are fragile. One such case: Penn, star of this film, attacked by the homosexual The Advocate for his support of Venezuelan leftist Hugo Chavez, whose rule in Caracas has been partly characterized by repression of homosexuals. Milk is buoyed by its several key performances, but its realism in the realm of the political deserves special kudos.