Monday, December 8, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

When it comes to telling the story of a real person’s life, it takes a great fiction film to beat a good documentary. And since The Times of Harvey Milk was good enough to earn an Oscar, you have to wonder just why we need director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s flatfooted Milk.

One of the best things about Milk is its use of documentary footage. In the silent, black-and-white opener, furtive men in what appears to be the ‘50s carefully shade their faces from the camera while mingling in gay bars or getting stuffed into paddy wagons. It’s a chilling introduction to the gay experience as it was first encountered by Harvey Milk, who was born in 1930.

Milk shows Milk (Sean Penn) only briefly as a closeted middle-aged businessman in his native New York, but Penn’s delicately calibrated acting lets us appreciate the sense of liberation Milk must have felt after moving to San Francisco in the early ‘70s. Indulging his own interest in photography while running a camera shop in the Castro with his beautiful boyfriend, Scott (James Franco), Milk became a pony-tailed, blue-jeaned bohemian – and found himself at the center of a fledgling gay-rights movement.

After jumping around in time a bit, the movie soon settles into chronological order. Milk organizes his gay friends and customers to boycott the Castro’s gay-unfriendly businesses and then moves on to bigger political battles, rallying gays to help the Teamsters boycott Coors beer and launching a campaign for city supervisor. Somewhere along the line, he becomes the self-styled “Mayor of Castro Street” and begins running for elected office (it took him several tries to win a city supervisor slot), fueled by the conviction that gay people need political representation just like any other minority group. “If you help elect to the central committee and other offices more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised,” he says in a moving signature speech that’s reenacted in the film.

The movie spends a lot of time outlining the strategies that led to Milk’s eventual victory, yet it always feels a little stagey and never quite recreates the feel of his legendarily disorganized campaign. Its overreliance on montage keeps us at emotional arm’s length, and a generally welcome lack of sensationalism has the unfortunate side effect of making Milk’s election to office feel anticlimactic.

But the main problem is the script’s failure to dig beneath the surface. We get little more than a cameo appearance by crucial campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill), who we learn about more by hearing how others describe her than by watching her in action. And we know almost nothing about either of Milk’s two live-in lovers, Scott and Jack (Diego Luna), except that Scott is supportive and stable while Jack is demanding and unstable. Of course, that makes Milk’s relationships with both men feel pretty thin.

Milk’s fellow city supervisor and eventual murderer Dan White (Josh Brolin) remains wholly opaque, which in turn makes it unclear whether Milk was killed because his activism set off anti-gay bigotry or because he crossed paths with an emotionally unstable coworker who fixated on him for some unknown reason. And Milk himself comes off as too good to be true – although one scene, in which he directs campaign organizer Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) to incite a near-riot just so he can play the hero by stopping it, hints at an opportunistic, manipulative side.

The movie leans too heavily on a couple of gay stereotypes. There are at least two too many scenes of Milk basking in opera, including a laughably heavy-handed death scene. Not even Sean Penn can pull off teetering before a window on his knees, mortally wounded, while gazing at posters advertising Tosca.

Penn also gets the unenviable task of reading from the final statement Milk left to be played in the event of his assassination. Every so often, the movie grinds to a halt while we watch Penn’s Milk sit at a kitchen table and record parts of that statement, most of which tell us things we’ve already seen unfold or are about to watch.

In spite of everything, Penn does a wonderful job. Widening his deep-creased smile and softening his eyes, he exudes waves of joy, loving kindness, humor, and courage that make it easy to imagine why so many people might have been so drawn to Milk – though I could never quite stop wondering what might have been airbrushed out of that portrait.

Brolin is also excellent, giving White a stiff, needy nerdiness that makes him pitiable rather than odious. And Franco’s slow-burning incandescence, Luna’s askew intensity, and Hirsch’s flirty charisma make their characters interesting to watch even when they don’t have much to do.

And yet, when the filmmakers intercut footage of the actors with documentary footage of the people they’re playing at the end of the film, almost all the real people look more complex and compelling than their Hollywood counterparts.

The last one we see is Milk, caught in the middle of an extended laugh, surrounded by friends, and delighted by the life he was living so fully. More than anything else in this two-hour-plus movie, that fleet, flickering image made me mourn his violent and untimely death.

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