- 'MILK' TRANSCENDS: The cliches of biopics and issue movies. Here Sean Penn's Harvey Milk celebrates.
I'm generally suspicious of issue films. They strike me as a kind of corrupt sermon in which the filmmakers promise to point out the bad guys, and in exchange, we'll all be allowed to feel outraged at other people and good about ourselves. It's weak sauce.
Biopics occupy a curious middle ground between issue films and real storytelling, though, thanks to their focus on a person as well as the issue championed.
“Milk,” Gus Van Sant's portrait of Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay man elected to office, succeeds pretty well, I'm happy to report. Most of the ways in which it succeeds are so predictable it's almost boring to write it down. To wit: Sean Penn is of course brilliant in the title role, as is Josh Brolin as his rival. So is Emile Hirsch. So is James Franco. Okay, so is everyone who acts in this film. There ain't a dog in the bunch.
Van Sant is on his game, reining in his sometimes annoying fondness of the fuzzy slow-mo mood montages that occasionally drag his movies down (see “Paranoid Park” for an example of this, or rather, don't). They're there, but they're blessedly rare. His direction is solid, his choice of camera angles sometimes so intimate that you'd swear you could smell the sweat and aftershave. Some of his shots look and feel like distilled, concentrated love.
I expected such good things, as should anyone who wants to see “Milk,” so what really stood out for me, the thing about the film that separates it from the usual run of issue films, is its refusal to devolve into a facile white-hats-vs.-black-hats morality play. Dan White, the city supervisor who would ultimately kill Milk and the mayor is as important a character as Milk, and Van Sant very much wants us to understand what circumstances could turn a basically good man into a desperate killer. Despite his crimes, White is no monster. He is an object of our sympathy and pity and, yes, our righteous anger too.
Understanding Milk's murderer robs us of the ability to sit in the fog of corrupt moral smugness that issue movies normally invite. And this is part of “Milk's” crowning achievement: We expect Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black to make us see Harvey as a man as much as a homosexual (though they wisely do not play down either his homosexuality or his femininity), but they surprise us by similarly humanizing his political enemy and eventual assassin. They rob us of our outrage and leave us with a portrait of an unendurable loss in the midst of major social gain. They leave us with the senselessness of real world tragedy, not movie tragedy. They leave us saddened and hopeful and eager for change.
Not a bad way to spend nine bucks.