Slain politician Harvey Milk was a gay pioneer and by all accounts a real mensch and role model, and his story was told in full for the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Now Gus Van Sant is trolling for awards with Milk, a paint-by numbers biopic of the tireless activist that wastes the efforts of some fine actors, most notably Sean Penn, who strives to play Milk as a three-dimensional person with idiosyncrasies and failings even as the “let’s get from A to B” script by Dustin Lance Black boxes him into textbook sainthood. Penn manages to get some energy going in his public speeches, especially when he’s riling up a crowd in the Castro, the gay area of San Francisco where Milk served as unofficial Mayor and then elected official, and he has nice moments of physical schtick that involve subtle, queeny eye flares and dainty hand gestures. Penn even reaches for Brando-esque tragedy in the last scenes, but the straightforward corniness of the script foils all his actorly nuances.
Milk begins with black-and-white footage of gay bars being raided, then moves to the courtship between a forty-year old Milk and Scott Smith, a curly-headed hedonist played as a series of stoned/sexy smiles by James Franco. Penn and Franco work hard at their romantic chemistry (if they smiled any harder at each other their heads would explode), but Van Sant keeps us at a distance from their connection with the smooth assurance of a disconnected voyeur and a half-assed audience pleaser. Franco did some early publicity on the film where he talked about several sex scenes he shot with Penn, but these have all been cut, and it can’t help but seem peculiar that the more Penn’s Milk talks about how every gay needs to come out of the closet, the more Van Sant keeps the politician’s personal life in the literal shadows; there’s some smooching out in the open, yet whenever clothes come off, Van Sant cuts or turns out the lights, all the while asking us to believe that this is supposed to be the freewheeling 70s Castro.
Grainy television footage of sweetly-smiling, viperish gay rights foe Anita Bryant is mixed with grainy new footage in Milk’s apartment and campaign headquarters, but there’s no juice, orange or otherwise, in the bland back-and-forth conversations about grassroots political strategies, even when an avid Emile Hirsch and a fragile Diego Luna are trying their damndest to pump some youthful energy into this hagiography. Luna is especially ill-served by the narrative; we see glimpses of his fraught, sexually charged relationship with Milk, but Van Sant and Black handle his sad exit from the story in a “moving right along!” fashion that is borderline offensive. As Milk’s murderer Dan White, who was given a light sentence after his attorney argued that junk food had impaired his judgment, all Josh Brolin gets to do is sulk and pout, and Black’s theory that White was a closet case is just as ineffectual as the film’s patchwork, uncertain style of directing (again, there were reports that Brolin got to go all-out in a late-night Twinkie binge scene which is nowhere to be found in the final cut).
Van Sant fails most conspicuously in the many scenes of marches and riots; he has no feel whatsoever for a crowd and no way to animate a locale. There’s no life around the edges of these sequences, just a careful period re-creation that comes nowhere near convincing us that we’re really in a certain time and place and that something important is at stake (if you want to see the film Milk could have been, look at the Stanley Kubrick-styled trailer). Two key scenes where Milk talks to a despairing young gay kid in a wheelchair are so poorly played and shot that they reduce what was obviously a heart-rending exchange in life into something almost laughably mawkish on screen. This film might get some tentative acclaim in some quarters for its pro-gay cheerleading. But it cannot be denied that a movie as wishy-washy, trite and simplified as Milk denies and destroys the complexity of life as it is really lived, and Van Sant can’t even fashion the kind of basic Hollywood energy that might give at least the second half of this very dramatic true story the rousing call-to-arms mood needed for the no-less crucial next steps of today’s gay rights movement.