Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008): USA

Reviewed by Byron Potau.  Viewed at the Riviera Theatre, Santa Barabra, CA.

In the aftermath of electing our first black President it would seem fitting to revisit another first in our political history, the election of our first openly gay politician, Supervisor Harvey Milk.  However, director Gus Van Sant’s take on the last years of Harvey Milk’s life comes off as maudlin and trite.

Milk begins as Harvey (Sean Penn) randomly, and easily, picks up Scott Smith (James Franco) in a subway station and takes him home to have sex.  They then go off together, eventually ending up on Castro St. in San Francisco where they open a camera shop.  As gays continue to populate the area, Harvey manages to organize them well enough to give them power in their neighborhood.  After several failed attempts at public office, Harvey is finally elected Supervisor, but loses Scott in the process, the campaigning having taken its toll on their relationship.  Harvey finds himself in another relationship with a man who walks up to his shop one night drunk and offers himself to Harvey.  The film then focuses on Harvey’s fight against the Brigg’s Initiative to fire gay teachers, while sprinkling a few tense scenes of Dan White (Josh Brolin) frustrated with Harvey’s lack of support for his own agenda.  The film follows through to the assassination of Harvey and Mayor George Moscone by Dan White, and to the candlelight vigil in Harvey’s honor.

When one has a moving factual story already in place, the worst thing a director can do is overplay it, yet that is exactly what Gus Van Sant does here.  It takes bad directing to make an actual assassination feel false;Van Sant is more interested in his own concocted opera motif than the realities of the scene.  In trying to heighten the emotion, he renders the scene emotionally void.  Just as Van Sant is overplaying the facts, it seems he did not trust that a truly gay actor could portray any of the important gay roles in the film so we are stuck with straight actors acting gay which always has the danger of going overboard.  Sean Penn gives a good performance as Harvey, tweaking his voice and adjusting his physical mannerisms to match Harvey’s.  Surprisingly good is James Franco as Harvey’s longtime lover Scott Smith.  Franco seems comfortable in the seventies setting and opts for subtlety rather than overplaying his part.  The same cannot be said for Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones who looks like Emile Hirsch trying to act gay.  It is grating on the nerves and one wonders why a legitimately gay actor could not have played this role.  As for the non gay character of Dan White, Josh Brolin fits the part physically, but other than a few superficial arguments we never get a sense of the character and what could have been a complex role goes wasted.  Van Sant makes use of a lot of archive footage that does not mesh well with the cinematography of the film.  If he was going to do this it seems it would have been better to desaturate the colors more to give it a more authentic seventies look and minimize the discrepancy between his footage and the archive footage.  Though Van Sant himself is gay, you get the feeling he has no real sense of Harvey Milk; the film is factual, but flawed and empty.  If you want to see a film about Harvey Milk you should stick with the 1984 award winning documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.

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