Anchored by a towering performance by Sean Penn as the slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk, and featuring a number of intriguing parallels to the ongoing battle against Proposition 8 in California, Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” is earnest, intelligent and highly laudable.
What it is not, by any of the stretch of the imagination, is an especially original or memorable movie. Indeed, coming from Van Sant, whose early, gay-themed works (“Mala Noche,” “My Own Private Idaho”) and more recent formal experimentations (“Elephant,” “Paranoid Park”) are among the greatest films of the last quarter-century, the ordinariness of this new movie feels almost like a betrayal of its subject. “Milk” is the squarest and safest treatment imaginable of a truly revolutionary figure.
Harvey Milk, of course, was a San Francisco city supervisor in the 1970s — the first openly gay elected official in the United States. The movie begins in New York City, just prior to Milk’s 40th birthday, and follows him to San Francisco, where he opens a camera store, makes several unsuccessful runs for office before finally getting elected, and eventually leads a successful fight against Proposition 6 — a legal effort to expunge gay and lesbian schoolteachers from California schools. Along the way, we also meet Milk’s boyfriends (as represented by James Franco and Diego Luna), his political allies (Emile Hirsch turns up as activist Cleve Jones), and one very dangerous enemy, a fellow city supervisor named Dan White (Josh Brolin).
But the dutifulness of the movie eventually turns wearying. With a couple of exceptions — the unnerving assassination sequence, for instance, which replays some of the camera tracking techniques Van Sant employed in “Elephant” — “Milk” has no discernible style or point of view; it’s a standard-issue biopic that would probably play a lot better on HBO. (The screenplay is by Dustin Lance Black.) You also can’t help but wonder how Harvey Milk — who believed ferociously in the importance of gay people refusing to kowtow to the straight mainstream — would have felt about a movie that portrays homosexuality so timidly. (Watching this movie, you would think that a bathhouse is a place that sells linens and dish towels.)
See it for Penn, whose gentle-spirited performance is a revelation from an actor better known for playing moody, broody figures in “Mystic River” and “Dead Man Walking.”
Flawlessly capturing Milk’s nasally voice and his nerdy charm, he paints an alternately joyous and poignant portrait of a late bloomer finally finding his voice, only to have it taken away from him much too soon. He’s so good he frequently fools you into thinking you’re watching a much better movie than the one on the screen.
MOVIE REVIEW | “Milk”
Cast: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin
Director: Gus Van Sant
Time: 128 minutes
Rated: R (nudity, sexual content, strong profanity, brief violence)