Milk presents details about the title character and his relevance in history, but the presentation itself appears more intent on being a recruitment film than an actual biopic.
Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) is a New Yorker about to turn forty who realizes that, in order to keep his so-called job and friends, he must hide one of the key things that defines him: his homosexuality. Along with his new lover Scott (James Franco), Harvey moves to San Francisco to open a camera shop only to immediately be harassed for his open relationship, even enduring threats to keep his new business open. Harvey finds out that he’s a natural negotiator when he helps out local teamsters with problems of their own, a revelation that leads him to run for city supervisor as an openly gay candidate. While the elections put a strain on his home relationship, Harvey knows in his heart that every campaign fought calls more attention to his cause, and not everyone is going to be happy about that.
For anyone who doesn’t know who Harvey Milk is or anything about his historical significance, Milk does an excellent job of laying out the facts. What it fails to do is show much about the man himself to fill in the spaces, instead opting to glorify “what” he is as opposed to who he is. By the end of the film, this choice turns into a melodrama that undermines and muddles the film’s message. Is this film about a man who finds the courage to speak out for a cause close to his heart by encouraging the same in others, or is it a thinly-disguised cinematic push for the lawfully-enforced acceptance of affectionate public displays between like genders?
Josh Brolin’s portrayal of rival supervisor Dan White, for example, seems to carry more weight in building up his relatively small contribution to this story. Nothing much is said about Harvey himself other than a telling scene when a quickly-stopping car prompts him to assume the worst and hurry his pace to reach safety, or a footnoted fact about how many lovers in his life had committed suicide. Replacing these insights are bits of kissing, nudity, and ass-grabbing that appears keen on glorifying just how much fun unbridled homosexuality is while portraying every heterosexual figure as stuffy, intolerant, or merely having their own agenda that makes getting into bed with Harvey Milk a mutually-satisfying proposition (pun intended). Yes, we get it, he’s gay; are we meant to believe that there was nothing else that in any way defined this man’s character?
Compare Milk to other recent biopics such as Walk the Line and Ray. At no time watching these films are audiences ever swayed to think “Wow, I wish I had the courage to be a self-destructive alcoholic who only takes solace in my music” or “Gee, it’d be swell to be a blind, black piano player who overcomes oppression and a corrupt studio system.” Milk seems to start too late in Harvey’s life, then defines his lifestyle as a synonym for the man himself and anyone else. So many other questions are brought up then glossed over. Why did he open a camera shop? Who were the other lovers who committed suicide, a revelation made very late in the film? Hell, who was the one who didn’t kill himself?
It’s likely that plenty of research was done to keep everything historically accurate, from the evolution of the San Francisco neighborhoods to period-correct clothing. Performances by the main cast, including those of Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna, are fine but otherwise unexceptional. Moments of award-worthiness provided for Sean Penn by the script are few and far between, but the flow of the film is so sporadic moving between time frames that there isn’t time given to build up to these emotional outbursts, a fact which also creates the illusion that they are just as quickly forgotten and therefore irrelevant to begin with. All of this culminates in the eventual ending which goes on far too long, backpedaling to earlier scenes of omen-like revelation to the slow-motion melodrama that contributes nothing further to the life of Harvey Milk.
(a two skull recommendation out of four)