Gus Van Sant’s warm, inspirational biopic of slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk suffers from a weak script, but is elevated by exceptional performances from Sean Penn as Milk and Josh Brolin as Dan White, the eventual assassin. By avoiding conventional tactics for telling a biographical narrative, Van Sant sets his film apart from the masses, yet also gives it a fundamental weakness. For even though Milk is in nearly every frame, the focus on his public life, disregard for his past, and shallow development of his romantic relationships leave us feeling as if we haven’t learned much about the man, even as we’ve fallen in love with him. It’s obvious that Milk was a heroic figure, but the film barely touches on the flaws and shortcomings that made him human. There are numerous occasions where on provocative detail about Milk’s character – such as his insistence on his friends coming out to their parents, while he never did the same – is mentioned only to be discarded. We also don’t know exactly what drives Milk to let his personal relationships fail and put his life in danger for a cause that seems unimportant to him when he first arrives in San Fransisco. His drive and the tragedies of his relationships are barely explored, and both these issues could have been solved together with one revealing scene between him and the love of his life, Scott, revealing important details about both characters and deepening the bond between them for greater emotional impact.
Instead what we get is Scott, played well by James Franco, reduced to the role of “jilted wife,” and falling into the kind of biopic stereotype Van Sant clearly wishes to avoid. There is chemistry between the two actors, and they look great together, but their relationship never progresses beyond a surface level. This is a problem because even after the romantic relationship dissolves, Scott remains a part of the story, and it is implied that they still love and need each other, but Harvey has chosen his cause over his personal life. When Diego Luna saunters in as some kind of insane, ditzy and flamboyant new “Mrs. Milk,” Harvey’s personal feelings become even more obscured. The disastrous events at the end of the film lose some of their impact because we can’t understand Harvey’s motivations on a deeper level than what can be assumed (he is fighting and sacrificing because he believes it will help people). This certainly works on an inspirational level, but as a character study, leaves something to be desired.
Interestingly, White has much less screentime, but his motivations emerge more clearly. Brolin’s performance is intense and communicates so much without ever articulating anything directly. White was a troubled man, caught in a time of great change with nothing to hang on to, confused by the kindness shown to him by the kind of person he has spent his whole life blindly resenting. White functions as a symbol for people who find their entire worldviews challenged by getting to know the people they have inherited prejudices against through religion or culture. Yet he sets himself apart as a singular character, and arouses both sympathy and disgust from a discerning viewer. The scenes between White and Milk are the best in the film – complex, heartbreaking, beautifully shot and framed. Their relationship is far more interesting than the ones that create the rift between them. The penultimate assassination scene is incredibly tense in its inevitability. Both Brolin and Penn deserve accolades for their work here, and they bring out the best in each other as actors.
The film functions really well as a portrait of a movement and its release could not have better timing. Although I’m 100% behind the agenda it pushes, I feel like it’s a little too aware of the agenda and its importance and sacrifices cinematic interest to get its message across. It works more as a propaganda piece for the gay civil rights movement than a character study of Harvey Milk. I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t think it does the real Milk – or Penn’s performance – the justice he deserves.