It’s hard for directors to get original with biopics, because their conventions are so firmly entrenched. If the subject was a show-biz star, her life will be portrayed as a fevered series of highs and lows. If it’s a tireless crusader for a cause, the movie will give him a long-suffering significant other who frets when he doesn’t show up at the dinner table. And if the subject was assassinated, the film will end in a golden glow of martyrdom, with assurances that the sacrifice was not in vain.
Milk is the first big-budget Hollywood biopic of a gay hero — and on that score, at least, it breaks new ground. Director Gus Van Sant presents the 1970s development of San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood into a gay Mecca — and a force for national change — in vivid, telling detail. With its somber orchestral score, his work is an unabashed elegy for a fallen hero, and as such, it indulges in plenty of traditional biopic clichés. But when it’s at its best, and least sentimental, Milk is a fascinating study of what it takes to attain political power in America, and how that power can be used to change the minds of the many about the few.
When we first meet Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), he’s living in New York, working at an insurance company. But he already demonstrates a politician’s seductive gift of gab when he talks a handsome stranger (James Franco) into coming home with him. Soon the two of them have moved to San Francisco, where Milk opens a camera store and starts organizing the new denizens of the Castro against the forces of police repression and bigotry. To the members of the wealthy gay establishment, he looks like a scruffy, in-your-face hippie, and his first three runs for city supervisor are unsuccessful. But after a redistricting allows neighborhoods to elect their own representatives — and Milk puts on suits and learns to work his angles — he wins, becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to a California public office.
The movie also portrays a broader “culture war” — an aspect that’s all too relevant now, given the November passage of California’s Proposition 8. Back in the ’70s, orange-juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant was the voice of the conservative Christian crusade against gay rights, but with each victory in Kansas or Oregon, she inadvertently helped create an organized opposition. In some of the film’s most effective scenes, Milk ambushes and then publicly debates John Briggs, the sponsor of Prop. 6, which would have mandated the firing of homosexual teachers in public schools. Penn brings to life the populism and sly humor that made Milk charismatic both in and outside the gay community. “If children mimicked their teachers,” he points out, “we’d have a lot more nuns running around.”
When Milk is about politicking, it’s a highly absorbing film. But the portrayal of Milk’s friendships and relationships is sketchier. Franco plays the one-note role traditionally allotted to the neglected biopic wife, while other characters simply enter, say a few iconic-sounding lines, and leave. As Milk’s campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, Alison Pill has a strong presence, but after she’s brought up the issue of the underrepresented lesbian community, the movie doesn’t give her much to do. Emile Hirsch fares a little better as Cleve Jones: We witness his transformation from impish narcissist to activist.
Still, the film’s most intriguing character besides Milk is his fellow city supervisor — and eventual assassin — Dan White, whose motives remain mysterious. Josh Brolin plays White as an all-American boy with a chip on his shoulder, who can’t support his family on his salary and resents Milk for having an “issue” when all he has is the support of the city’s crumbling Irish-Catholic old guard. In his attempts to reach out to White and get his support, Penn’s Milk shows his political acuity: He sees people as people, not as embodiments of demographics or ideologies. (It doesn’t hurt that he thinks White might secretly be “one of us.”) But he gravely misfires.
While the film doesn’t portray Milk as perfect, it does bend over backward to remind us he was an inspiration. (We see him taking phone calls from struggling gay youth all over the country.) If Van Sant’s film snags some Oscars and brings in the same staid ticket buyers who line up for biopics such as Walk the Line, that will be a welcome reminder of how far the country’s come. Still, it’s hard not to wish the talented director had done a more free-wheeling portrait of the ornery, ground-breaking figure who brought politics out of the closet.