Re-creation of ‘Milk’ leaves
one pining for the documentary

“Milk” is a biopic, and that is the problem.

It is just not a movie.

If that sounds harsh, consider that is also the opinion here of celebrated pictures such as “Ray” and “Walk the Line” and the more recent “Frost/Nixon.”

It doesn’t mean they are bad films — just films lacking a point. Instead of watching famous actors re-enact landmark historical events, why not watch the real thing on a biography channel and save the cinema for actual drama.

A telling moment of “Milk” is in the credits, where the actors are listed next to a photo of the actual person they portray. Not surprisingly, they all look much like the real people, down to the hair styles. To some extent this is unavoidable, given that the protagonist is a real person, photographed often in the recent past, and knowledgeable audiences won’t buy it if the obvious facts are changed. But “Milk” seems much more a tribute to re-creation than drama. There must be a story in regards to Harvey Milk, but it’s not in this movie.

Finding a story takes a little digging. Why, exactly, was Harvey significant? He was the first openly gay elected official anyone can think of. But it was in San Francisco, which is probably the place where that should’ve happened. And it only happened once redistricting occurred. Good for Harvey, but references to gerrymandering (if it indeed was gerrymandering) as a positive are a dubious film element, to say the least.

Milk has something of a story in that he kept trying after he was rebuffed or defeated. But perseverance is not his calling card. Harvey has some motivation, but this is not “Rocky II.”

Was Harvey a political Jackie Robinson? Yes, on some level. Robinson though was a more polarizing figure of great national interest who had to live a segregated life from his colleagues. Milk could stay at any hotel or dine at any restaurant of his choosing. That isn‘t to say he is any less a victim of prejudice, only that it is a different kind of prejudice. Milk’s parallels to the earliest black and Latino politicians are stronger than they are to baseball players.

Milk has two nemeses in this film. The more important one is not a principled foe, but a lunatic. Dealing with lunatics is not easy subject matter for moviemakers. It is difficult if not impossible to tie motivation to their actions, nor is it really possible for the protagonists to defeat them short of killing them. That is why they are best left to horror films.

Director Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”) struggles to suggest that Dan White is the figurehead of the bigotry and death threats Harvey faces. But White is representative of little except O.J.-style madmen. The politics he discusses are of the most typical parochial nature. He is not leading an anti-gay movement, though he dislikes gay people. Harvey seems well-received in San Francisco, long regarded as America’s (if not the world’s) most friendly city to gays.

The most dramatic element of Harvey’s life is that he urged others like him to come out. One of the best scenes involves a very likable political rally, likable in the sense that everyone is on the same page, is saying what they believe, and they are excited about it. No doubt, what Harvey says is true: They’ll all be stronger when they come out and make their presence known.

This potential is mostly lost, however, by getting bogged down in a real-life battle with Anita Bryant, who is not a good villain for this or any film. Whether Bryant was the real problem, or just the figurehead, her presence requires too much historical recall that most people (even people old enough during the ’70s) no longer possess. Anita Bryant backed some anti-gay measure on the California ballot? It’s not exactly Darth Vader threatening to incinerate Alderon.

The most disappointing element of “Milk” is that, without a clear story, Van Sant is forced to rely on a massive cliche to move the plot along, that being the public crusader (“Erin Brockovich,” “Breach,” “Zodiac,” among gobs of others) whose tireless pursuit of an objective costs him/her a love life at home. A significant other moves out. The greatest casualty of Harvey’s political aspirations is his boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco), and we see that Harvey’s subsequent relationships don’t work out so well.

Van Sant also exploits Harvey for another purpose: the depiction of same-sex intimacy. Perhaps this boundary has been shattered by “Brokeback Mountain” already, but Van Sant seems eager to show as many bedroom and kissing scenes as possible. In fact the most memorable scene might be the opening, where Milk meets Scott Smith in a random encounter on the New York subway. What happens, on some level, is almost startling, and would be startling if they were both not male. Van Sant’s scenes of Milk’s passion are attention-getting, and do advance the plot, but there is also a sense Van Sant is seeking some kind of historical first.

Despite its limitations, “Milk” is going to have appeal for 1970s news junkies, people of a certain age who like rehashing the very memorable news events of that decade. San Francisco was a hotbed of the type of sagas that would now be discussed on cable news channels nightly. There was the Zodiac killer, Patty Hearst, Squeaky Fromme (in Sacramento), a connection to Jim Jones, and then there was the Milk-Moscone story.

The greatest biopic ever made is likely “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It is the story of a real person, but not a particularly famous one, and thus artistic license can be taken, to superb effect. It is a story of someone who gave his life for his country (not in the way you’d expect), released at a time (1942) when such sentiments were in massive demand. It shows how a person’s talent for something as simple as a little song can inspire millions when they most need it, but it also unflinchingly depicts the faults of its hero — for too long, the only thing standing between greatness and George M. Cohan was George M. Cohan, and he finally figured it out.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” like “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” requires its star to master musical skills. “Milk” requires little special talents of Sean Penn other than to pick up various mannerisms and re-create speeches. His greatest challenge is probably pulling off the intimacy scenes. Penn can do anything and can justly be called (with several others) the world’s greatest actor, but he likely does a better Harvey Milk than even Harvey himself could do.

The semi-forgotten person in this tragedy is George Moscone, played here by Victor Garber. This is not a movie about him, so it is understandable that he would be portrayed in several scenes as an afterthought. But something feels a bit odd, or empty about his role.

It was said above that the opening scene may be the most memorable. Two others are more powerful. They occur near the end, one being when Harvey holds up a hand and says “No.” The other shows actual footage of the San Francisco lighted vigil (though it is set up weakly by characters wondering where everyone is). The latter is convincing proof, as with other well-done films such as “World Trade Center” and “United 93,” that the material is best handled by the documentarians, and that Hollywood should step aside from this one.

3 stars
(February 2009)

“Milk” (2008)
Starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk ♦ Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones ♦ Josh Brolin as Dan White ♦ Diego Luna as Jack Lira ♦ James Franco as Scott Smith ♦ Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg ♦ Victor Garber as Mayor George Moscone ♦ Denis O’Hare as State Senator John Briggs ♦ Joseph Cross as Dick Pabich ♦ Stephen Spinella as Rick Stokes ♦ Lucas Grabeel as Danny Nicoletta ♦ Brandon Boyce as Jim Rivaldo ♦ Howard Rosenman as David Goodstein ♦ Kelvin Yu as Michael Wong ♦ Jeff Koons as Art Agnos ♦ Ted Jan Roberts as Dennis Peron ♦ Boyd Holbrook as Denton Smith ♦ Frank Robinson as Himself ♦ Allan Baird as Himself ♦ Tom Ammiano as Himself ♦ Carol Ruth Silver as Thelma ♦ Hope Goblirsch as Mary Anne White ♦ Steven Wiig as McConnely ♦ Ashlee Temple as Dianne Feinstein ♦ Wendy Tremont King as Carol Ruth Silver ♦ Kelvin Han Yee as Gordon Lau ♦ Robert Chimento as Phil Burton ♦ Ginabel Machado as Lily ♦ Daniel Landroche as Young Teen ♦ Trace Webb as Boy with Flier ♦ Velina Brown as Morning Show Host ♦ Scott Patrick Green as House Boy ♦ Mary Dilts as Channel 5 Reporter ♦ Roman Alcides as City Hall Engineer ♦ Robert George Nelson as San Francisco Cop No. 1 ♦ Brian Danker as San Francisco Cop No. 2 ♦ Richard Gross as Riot Cop ♦ Borzin Mottaghian as Senator Briggs’ Driver ♦ Brian Yates Sharber as Gay Man ♦ Camron Palmer as Medora Paine ♦ Cully Fredricksen as Assistant Sheriff ♦ Mark Martinez as Sylvester ♦ Danny Glicker as Customer ♦ Catherine Cook as Opera Performer - Tosca ♦ Joe Meyers as Opera Performer - Spoletta ♦ Dominic Sahagun as Another Protester ♦ William McElroy as Barber ♦ Joey Hoeber as Union Man ♦ Mark E. Stanger as Priest ♦ Christopher Greene as Reporter ♦ Jesse Caldwell as Chamber Clerk ♦ Paul Arnold as Supervisor #1 ♦ Jack Dunston as Supervisor #2 ♦ Ron Gruetter as Supervisor #3 ♦ Awele Makeba as Supervisor #4 ♦ Tony Vella as Supervisor #5 ♦ William M. Verducci as Supervisor #6 ♦ Gilbert Baker as Telephone Tree #1 ♦ Shavi Blake as Telephone Tree #2 ♦ Brent Corrigan as Telephone Tree #3 ♦ Draco Dewar as Telephone Tree #4 ♦ Dave Franco as Telephone Tree #5 ♦ Alex Gonzalez as Telephone Tree #6 ♦ Olen Holm as Telephone Tree #7 ♦ Elias McConnell as Telephone Tree #8 ♦ Tom Ramdol as Telephone Tree #9 ♦ Lynn McRee as Moscone’s Secretary ♦ Cleve Jones as Don Amador ♦ John Parson as Castro Man ♦ Jay Kerzner as Speaker ♦ Kristen Marie Holly as Anne’s Friend ♦ Sandi Ippolito as Relative ♦ Roger Groh as Reporter ♦ Maggie Weiland as Girl on Motorcycle ♦ Dustin Lance Black as Castro Clone ♦ Drew Kuhse as Pizza Delivery Man ♦ Eric Cook as Robert Hillsborough ♦ Roger Mudd as Himself ♦ John Douglas Ayers as Castro local ♦ Tom Brokaw as Himself ♦ Anita Bryant as Herself ♦ Greg Cala as Senator Briggs Aide ♦ Jimmy Carter as Himself ♦ Cabran E. Chamberlain as Riot Cop ♦ John Clerkin as Castro guy ♦ Walter Cronkite as Himself ♦ Zachary Culbertson as Bill Kraus ♦ Leesha Davis as Hippie Girl ♦ Maddie Eisler as Birthday party relative ♦ Yeena Fisher as Teacher ♦ Blake Griffin as Castro man ♦ David Hodges as Castro Man ♦ Stacie Hovland as Hippy ♦ Shaun Landry as Gwenn Craig ♦ Derek Lux as Goodstein Aide ♦ Yoli Mapp as Law Student ♦ Harvey Milk as Himself ♦ John Prudhont as Sergeant at Arms ♦ Ronald Reagan as Himself ♦ Corbett Redford as Teamster ♦ Jeff Redlick as Teamster ♦ Timothy Roberts as Godfather ♦ Lin Shukla as Passenger ♦ Christopher Sugarman as Don’s Friend ♦ Jeremiah Turner as Law Student ♦ Brian Vowell as Castro Clone ♦ Cindy Warner as Irish local / PTA member / Candlelight marcher

Directed by: Gus Van Sant

Written by: Dustin Lance Black

Producer: Bruce Cohen
Producer: Dan Jinks
Producer: Michael London
Executive producer: Dustin Lance Black
Executive producer: Barbara A. Hall
Executive producer: William Horberg
Executive producer: Bruna Papandrea

Original music: Danny Elfman
Cinematography: Harris Savides
Editing: Elliot Graham
Casting: Francine Maisler
Production design: Bill Groom
Art direction: Charley Beal
Set decoration: Barbara Munch
Costume design: Danny Glicker
Executive in charge of production: Janice Williams
Production supervisor: Michelle Lankwarden
Unit production manager: Barbara A. Hall
Post-production supervisor: Robert Hackl
Makeup: Steven E. Anderson ♦ Michael White ♦ Stephan Dupuis ♦ Sterfon Demings ♦ Gretchen Davis ♦ Debra Dietrich ♦ Karen Bradley ♦ Toby Mayer ♦ Gregory Nicotero ♦ Jenny-King Turco ♦ Tess Green ♦ Robert Mruck ♦ Jennifer Tremont ♦ Nancie Marsalis ♦ David Beneke
Stunts: Rocky Capella ♦ Thomas M. Ficke ♦ Jeff Mosley ♦ Chris Carnel ♦ Kevin Bailey ♦ Paul Crawford ♦ Kevin Larson ♦ Mike Martinez ♦ Tim Meredith ♦ Danton Mew ♦ Michael Owen ♦ Rex Reddick
Thanks: Cleve Jones ♦ Danny Nicoletta
Special thanks: Rob Epstein ♦ Jason Krieger ♦ Michael E. Phillips
In memory of: Harvey Milk (1930-1978)


Back to