Another (Gay) Biopic
2008 // USA // Gus Van Sant // December 15, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - There's a frustrating ordinariness at work in Gus Van Sant's Milk. Hewing to the narrative conventions and rhythms of a thousand undemanding, "uplifting" biographical films that have gone before, it invites a viewer sympathetic to the struggle for gay rights to mutter in outrage and nod appreciatively at the right moments. Excepting Sean Penn's riveting performance as activist, politician, and martyr Harvey Milk, as well as Van Sant's modest but invigorating visual daubings, Milk rarely strays from pedestrian biopic territory. The faux-shocks of male-on-male kissing and tastefully lit intimacies aside, this is easily Van Sant's most determinedly accessible film in years, surpassing even Good Will Hunting. It's a touch disappointing that Van Sant--one of the boldest and most sensitive living American auteurs, and an openly gay one at that--has created a work mostly indistinguishable from any other biopic. Forgoing thematic richness for simplistic, feel-good messaging, Milk asks merely that we follow along and shed a tear or two.
This isn't to say that San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk or the American gay rights struggle aren't worthy of examination via cinema's lens. Indeed, in the sense that it sets out to tell a neglected story from a neglected viewpoint, Milk succeeds admirably. This is the energy that animates the film's otherwise limp biopic tropes in its best moments: the signature vigor of a tale told by those to whom it mattered most. Milk captures the events of 1970s San Francisco not only as its namesake saw them, but also as the Castro neighborhood, the broader gay community, and gay Americans dwelling in the wilderness of Flyover Country saw them. Strictly speaking, Milk may not belong to the subset of Van Sant's queer films, but nearly every principal character is a gay man or woman, and that's something in a film that otherwise is so earnest about embracing an appealing, familiar dramatic formula. The sexuality of the characters is somewhat incidental, which is strange given that their sexuality is also at the heart of the film's conflict. The straight sore thumb is Milk's fellow supervisor and assassin Dan White (Josh Brolin), who loiters menacingly around the film's periphery like a polyester-clad Robert Ford.
For those not familiar with the story of Harvey Milk, Van Sant reveals his bloody fate in the first few minutes, via archival news footage of Dianne Feinstein announcing the murder of Milk and Mayor George Moscone. It's the footage that unspools with the opening credits, however, that proffers the film's crispest connection between dramatized fact and cruel reality. In soundless black-and-white, anonymous men are hauled out of bars and nightclubs during police raids, their shame palpable across the decades. This, Van Sant suggests, is the not-so-vanished context for Milk's story, a civil rights nightmare that steeped a hidden swath of America in terror and self-loathing.
The film that follows, unfortunately, is never as thematically provocative as the mere existence of homosexuality once was. While it personalizes gay rights in the persona of Harvey Milk and and evinces undeniably empathy for all of its gay characters, Milk shies away from exploring the complexities and contradictions in the slain man's storied life. Thus, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black focus with misty-eyed adoration on Milk's uncompromising passion and optimism. The man's sheer ardor somewhat obfuscates the film's simplistic treatment of him. There is little suggestion of how Milk saw himself, beyond some mumbled statements about opera (naturally) that prove laughably crude. (Milk is fond of opera because it's grandiose, just like him!) Penn portrays the man as a scrappy archetype, furious and mesmerizing, but still merely an archetype. Milk's preference for expediency summons a parade of biopic clichés dressed up in queer regalia, embodied in the film's obligatory Griping Spouse, Scott (James Franco). Apparently rendering relatable gay characters requires hackneyed portrayals of their film relationships to rival the hackneyed film relationships of straights.
All the expected notes are present and accounted for: trials and tribulations framed for smooth digestion, clashes of personality, lessons learned and passed on, the death of a secondary character, and sinister hints of the tragic fate we know is looming. Despite the dishearteningly typical character to its components, Milk nonetheless stands as a superior specimen of the tired biopic species. Van Sant's deliciously audacious tendencies have largely been subsumed, but here and there he enlivens the film with an engaging use of framing, editing, music, or a bit of spliced archival footage. This modest current of cinematic jazz—focused and playful while still maintaining the film's grave yet fiery tone—is sufficient to elevate Milk beyond either the lifeless high-gloss or the ugly television aesthetic it might have featured under another director's hand.
However, the true heavy lifting in Milk is tackled by Sean Penn, an actor whose supposedly mythic talents have long eluded me. Here, however, Penn delivers a performance that enthralls despite the burdens of a deeply rutted narrative road and a spotty script. Properly attired and coifed, the actor bears an uncanny resemblance to Harvey Milk. What Penn crafts, however, is not mimicry, but a fierce and humane vision of a bruised and bloody fighter with fire in his belly. Penn sails through the film on pure charisma, lending spark to scenes that might otherwise be leaden. During Milk's seduction of nubile cruiser Cleve Jones (a bespectacled and afro-ed Emile Hirsch) to a life of activism, it's Penn's sharp sense for how to modulate the scene's volume, tone, and silences that lend it the electricity of destiny. Even Milk's bullhorn-amplified monologes--filled with greeting card platitudes about hope and change--are lively and downright watchable as delivered by Penn.
Perhaps it's not fundamentally fair to critique Milk in the context of the rest of Van Sant's filmography. Nonetheless, it's hard to resist contrasting what is on balance a thoroughly unremarkable biopic with the director's Paranoid Park from earlier this year. That film, with its stunning visual and aural feats, its daring, jumbled structure, and its uncommonly rich understanding of the adolescent mindscape, emerged as an absorbing psychological study and one of the best films of 2008. In comparison, despite Penn's bold command of the screen, Milk proves to be merely satisfactory. It is everything that is expected in the quality biopic of a slain crusader: affirming, warmly righteous without being smug, and a little hasty. Although it addresses a social issue I personally champion, I can't say I will remember it after Penn's award acceptance speeches have faded.