Milk, the new film by director Gus Van Sant, chronicles the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man voted into U.S. public office who was assassinated in San Francisco in 1978. Critics almost universally praise the film's recreation of San Francisco in the '70s, Van Sant's use of archival footage, and Sean Penn's performance in the title role. However, they're undecided as to how a film that celebrates one of the biggest heroes of the gay rights movement fits into the current political climate. The reviews, after the jump.Rolling Stone
There's really no maybe about Milk, directed with a poet's eye by Gus Van Sant from a richly detailed script by Big Love writer Dustin Lance Black. It's a total triumph, brimming with humor, heart, sexual heat, political provocation and a crying need to stir things up, just like Harvey did. If there's a better movie around this year, with more bristling purpose, I sure as hell haven't seen it.
Milk is a hagiography, but there’s nothing wrong with that if you believe, as director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black obviously do, in the gospel of Harvey Milk. And queer hagiography is bracingly different from that other kind, in that it’s often, so to speak, ass-backward, the road to rebirth leading through the flesh instead of around it. There aren’t many life stories of saints in which the hero’s salvation begins with picking up a studly young Midwesterner in a New York City subway station on the eve of said hero’s 40th birthday
As a study of a political moment, Milk is memorable. As a story of Milk's personal life, however, it leaves something to be desired. James Franco is sharp as the boyfriend who ditches him, but from the moment Diego Luna shows up in the underwritten role of Milk's flakiest lover, you feel that the film is leaving out as much as it shows. But that's a forgivable flaw in the rare liberal message-movie manifesto that lingers in the mind as well as the heart.
What sets this film entertainingly apart from most civil rights sagas, though, are a slew of relaxed, offhandedly persuasive performances, along with the flamboyance of hippie-era San Francisco. And of course there's Penn, who's so engaging, physically loose and just plain smart in the title role, he's bound to top everyone's shortlist come awards time.
[Milk] wants what straights take for granted: the ability to live without shame. By casting a famously macho actor as Harvey Milk, Van Sant has made the central humanist desire for self-acceptance and pride newly powerful. Giving himself utterly to the role, Penn takes an actor’s craft and dedication to soulful heights, making a demand for dignity that becomes universal.
While “Milk” is unquestionably marked by many mandatory scenes — the electioneering, outrage at conservative opposition, tension between domestic and public life, insider politicking, public demonstrations, et al. — the quality of the writing, acting and directing generally invests them with the feel of real life and credible personal interchange, rather than of scripted stops along the way from aspiration to triumph to tragedy. And on a project whose greatest danger lay in its potential to come across as agenda-driven agitprop, the filmmakers have crucially infused the story with qualities in very short supply today — gentleness and a humane embrace of all its characters, even of the entirely vilifiable gunman, Dan White.
There's nothing terribly wrong with "Milk," it's just that its celebration of a culture and a neighborhood, its valentine to the early days of gay rights activism, is mostly more conventional than compelling ... It's impossible to see "Milk's" anti-Prop. 6 demonstrations, to read signs saying things like "Gay rights now" and "Save our human rights," without thinking of the very current battle over Proposition 8 and its ban of gay marriage. This graphic demonstration that the struggles are far from over gives "Milk" a harder edge than its otherwise self-congratulatory tone could manage.
Van Sant's goal in "Milk" is to give the gay rights movement the grandness and impact of the civil rights movement. To do that, Milk must be made into the gay equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr., who led a moral crusade, fully knowing that he might be murdered along the way ... In truth, the King comparison only goes so far. Yes, Milk led a crusade that involved physical risk, and the real Harvey Milk did make tapes (in 1977) to be played in the event of his assassination. But it would be stretching things to say Milk was killed because he was gay. His death was more like a fluke, part of a macabre workplace crime that also robbed the city of its mayor. It's evidence of the film's effectiveness, its power to incite emotion, that Milk's death is made to feel like the inevitable consequence of his being a visionary.
The movie makes it hard not to see in him a little of Barack Obama or vice versa. The similarities are chilling at times. They both ran as agents for change, a message that drew people to them, especially the young, and managed to win the support of folks in spite of their own bigotry. What you're able to see is how far the country has come in four decades and how far it hasn't. The day of Obama's victory, voters also supported gay marriage bans in three states. Go figure.
This is an affectionately crafted, celebratory biopic about a sweet, shrewd, hard-assed, one-of-a-kind historical figure. And they can just FedEx the Oscar to Sean Penn's house right now, so that we don't have to listen to his acceptance speech.