"Milk" echoes the joyous nature of its subject

by Eric Melin on December 12, 2008

in Print Reviews

Director Gus Van Sant’s biopic about Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay men to be elected to public office, may be set in the mid 1970s, but the culture war 30 years ago is eerily reminiscent of the one being waged today. Luckily, Van Sant is as concerned about Milk as a person as he is with the larger issues at hand. That, and a spirited, natural lead performance from Sean Penn, help “Milk” become a wide-ranging portrait of the San Francisco gay rights movement and its people.

milk sean penn van santVan Sant (“Good Will Hunting,” “Paranoid Park”) flips back and forth between the warm, rich cinematography of Harris Savides and plenty of grainy archival footage throughout. The variety of film stocks and sources create a convincing sense of period, bouyed by dialogue and lingo that seem very “of the times.” Interestingly, the gay movement’s greatest political rival appears as herself in actual news reports from the ’70s (which also feature news anchors Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite).

Miss America runner-up-turned-pop-singer Anita Bryant campaigned heavily against gay rights, leading successful campaigns in Dade County, Fla. and Wichita, Ks., among other places, that were based on her “Christian belief” of the “perceived threat of homosexual recruitment of children and child molestation.” Eventually, the fervor over her crusade reaches California in the form of Propoistion 6, a proposed law that would make it mandatory to fire gay teachers and teachers who support gay rights. It was then that Milk, a camera-shop owner who ran unsuccessfully for city supervisor many times before finally being elected, was catapulted onto the national stage.

Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay hits all the standard “highlight” biopic moments in its scope, but it wisely doesn’t try to tackle Milk’s entire life. In fact, “Milk” is a better encapsulation of a specific moment in time than it is a comprehensive portrait of one man’s journey. The gay community that thrived in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco comes to life with a strong sense of humanity and good humor, especially for a group that was constantly threatened with random killings and harrassment. As played by Penn, Harvey Milk himself radiates kindness and possesses an unflappable resolve. There isn’t much difference between the man who is constantly thrust forward to speak for the gay community and the friend who helps a strung-out stranger into his shop late at night.

sean penn milk 2008Considering that it is a story steeped in tragedy, “Milk” is a joyous movie. In the film’s opening minutes, we see an actual TV broadcast announcing Milk’s murder inside City Hall in 1978. Flashing back to eight years previous, Harvey is shown in a playful exchange on a New York subway platform with Scott Smith (James Franco), who would become his boyfriend of many years. Although we don’t learn about the specifics of Milk’s life before then, there is a great feeling that the couple’s subsequent journey to the West Coast has freed them of their need to hide their sexuality. Harvey’s complete openness will later be the key to his political fortunes and the growth of the movement.

Josh Brolin plays fellow city supervisor Dan White, a figure who seems at once attracted to and repelled by Harvey. White’s pent-up frustrations are alluded to but, like much of the movie, ultimately left up to interpretation. White serves as a mirror to what some in “straight” society must have been feeling at the time of Harvey’s political rise. He appears bewildered and alienated by the sudden change in the wind as Milk breezes flamboyantly through public office, while he struggles to get bills passed that he feels represent his Irish-Catholic district. Brolin’s short amount of time onscreen does nothing to diminish the power of his performance, a truly three-dimensional yet restrained achievement.

Suffering a little bit from the common biopic hazards, “Milk” doesn’t always have a plot that propels itself forward effectively, especially in the beginning. Like Harvey’s life, though, the movie finds its direction and positions its main character as a symbol of hope without a preachy mentality. What’s scary is that the same arguments against homosexuality are surfacing again now like they did in Milk’s time. Van Sant’s agile movie, full of fresh performances and vigorous life, should go a long way towards making people examine how they feel about human rights.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Phil December 12, 2008 at 1:21 pm

I really loved this movie. Compared to recent biopics, this one clearly takes the cake in my opinion. It’s much more authentic than “Ray” or “Walk the Line” ever hoped to be. Maybe that has something to do with me being a musician and nitpicking the authenticity of the musical portions of those movies, but the point remains. Even if you don’t have a personal stake in this movie’s subject matter, I think it’s made well enough to move you. The portrayal of Harvey Milk as being a deeply flawed, imperfect guy who was also heroic is really great, too. No false deifying there or anything. I think you’ll agree the supporting cast was terrific as well, especially Emile Hirsch (who was also great in “Into the Wild,” which J.D. inexplicably hated… we’ll have to get to the bottom of that sometime).

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2 Phil December 12, 2008 at 1:21 pm

I really loved this movie. Compared to recent biopics, this one clearly takes the cake in my opinion. It’s much more authentic than “Ray” or “Walk the Line” ever hoped to be. Maybe that has something to do with me being a musician and nitpicking the authenticity of the musical portions of those movies, but the point remains. Even if you don’t have a personal stake in this movie’s subject matter, I think it’s made well enough to move you. The portrayal of Harvey Milk as being a deeply flawed, imperfect guy who was also heroic is really great, too. No false deifying there or anything. I think you’ll agree the supporting cast was terrific as well, especially Emile Hirsch (who was also great in “Into the Wild,” which J.D. inexplicably hated… we’ll have to get to the bottom of that sometime).

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3 Eric Melin December 12, 2008 at 1:49 pm

That’s funny because I was just saying the same thing in comparison with those two fairly rote biopics at lunch today with my friends! It is nice to see that there is some original concepts left for that genre. Ever seen Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls” starring Javier Bardem? That is about as odd and expressive as biopics get. Great movie.

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4 Eric Melin December 12, 2008 at 1:49 pm

That’s funny because I was just saying the same thing in comparison with those two fairly rote biopics at lunch today with my friends! It is nice to see that there is some original concepts left for that genre. Ever seen Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls” starring Javier Bardem? That is about as odd and expressive as biopics get. Great movie.

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5 RCM December 12, 2008 at 9:21 pm

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed “Milk” quite a lot, but this was a pretty standard, by the numbers biopic. My biggest problem with this movie is that it simply lacks the courage to be challenging. “…Should go a long way towards making people examine how they feel about human rights.”- Not, I doubt it. This movie is tailor made for an audience that will simply be reaffirmed in their beliefs and will relish in having this movie as an excuse to talk about prop 8’s win in California and how tragic it is and how important this movie is and so on and so on. I also don’t agree that it showed Milk as being deeply flawed.
It’s skillfully directed and beautifully acted and since I fit into that target audience I can say that I enjoyed it but was also relatively uninspired by it’s would-be hopefulness. The character that I thought was most interesting, Dan White, didn’t get enough screen time. If I were making a movie about this subject then I would have also made him one of the main characters. Then we could have had the title WHITE MILK. My pun’s worse than yours, Eric.

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6 RCM December 12, 2008 at 9:21 pm

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed “Milk” quite a lot, but this was a pretty standard, by the numbers biopic. My biggest problem with this movie is that it simply lacks the courage to be challenging. “…Should go a long way towards making people examine how they feel about human rights.”- Not, I doubt it. This movie is tailor made for an audience that will simply be reaffirmed in their beliefs and will relish in having this movie as an excuse to talk about prop 8’s win in California and how tragic it is and how important this movie is and so on and so on. I also don’t agree that it showed Milk as being deeply flawed.
It’s skillfully directed and beautifully acted and since I fit into that target audience I can say that I enjoyed it but was also relatively uninspired by it’s would-be hopefulness. The character that I thought was most interesting, Dan White, didn’t get enough screen time. If I were making a movie about this subject then I would have also made him one of the main characters. Then we could have had the title WHITE MILK. My pun’s worse than yours, Eric.

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7 Phil December 13, 2008 at 4:07 pm

Eric- I have not seen that movie, but am now interested in seeing it. Didn’t know it was Javier Bardem’s first Oscar nomination.

RCM- I think their portrayal of Harvey Milk was very much as a deeply flawed man. He had several lovers kill themselves which he blamed on his own inattentiveness and previous position as a closeted gay man. He was often disloyal and went back on his word with Dan White. He was a poor businessman. Plus, the big one we’re forgetting: he was gay (just kidding). As for the film not challenging its audience, I think it challenged both its target, inevitably supportive audience with the character flaws mentioned above – not to mention Milk imploring all gays to out themselves – and its hard-to-win-over audience with its slew of homosexual love scenes and unapologetic characters (as they should be).

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8 Phil December 13, 2008 at 4:07 pm

Eric- I have not seen that movie, but am now interested in seeing it. Didn’t know it was Javier Bardem’s first Oscar nomination.

RCM- I think their portrayal of Harvey Milk was very much as a deeply flawed man. He had several lovers kill themselves which he blamed on his own inattentiveness and previous position as a closeted gay man. He was often disloyal and went back on his word with Dan White. He was a poor businessman. Plus, the big one we’re forgetting: he was gay (just kidding). As for the film not challenging its audience, I think it challenged both its target, inevitably supportive audience with the character flaws mentioned above – not to mention Milk imploring all gays to out themselves – and its hard-to-win-over audience with its slew of homosexual love scenes and unapologetic characters (as they should be).

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9 Phil December 13, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Oh no. Are my comments getting trashed again?

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10 Phil December 13, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Oh no. Are my comments getting trashed again?

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11 RCM December 13, 2008 at 5:31 pm

Going back on his word with White was definitely a plot point I wished they had looked deeper into. Besides that though, I think they played up the other flaws in his character as somewhat superficial seaming and didn’t really make the audience, or at least me, feel like I should be questioning this mans motives (was he somewhat greedy, power hungry, attention starved). They all seemed like added characterizations to make me sympathize with him more as a person who is clearly tortured and therefore ultimately correct. I don’t see how it was challenging anyone who isn’t against gay rights. Asking all his followers to out themselves would have been a really interesting angle if they had developed it beyond one somewhat anti-climatic scene. Even the love scenes where mild if compared to the amount of heterosexual foreplay, erotic tension and even sex is considered allowable in even partially mild mainstream movies. These critiques are, however, shallow to the degree that they represent more of what I wish I had gotten out of the film and have less to do with the films over all quality. I just wish they had played up the dirtier sides of politics and revolution and less of the obvious. As mentioned, I really did enjoy “Milk” a lot, but I don’t think this is a movie that is going to get anyone to really think hard about these issues, nor do I see how this is particularly different then many prior biopics that I’ve seen, at least plot wise. it’s certainly a hard genre to find lots of originality in. I’ll be checking out “Before Night Falls” soon.

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12 RCM December 13, 2008 at 5:31 pm

Going back on his word with White was definitely a plot point I wished they had looked deeper into. Besides that though, I think they played up the other flaws in his character as somewhat superficial seaming and didn’t really make the audience, or at least me, feel like I should be questioning this mans motives (was he somewhat greedy, power hungry, attention starved). They all seemed like added characterizations to make me sympathize with him more as a person who is clearly tortured and therefore ultimately correct. I don’t see how it was challenging anyone who isn’t against gay rights. Asking all his followers to out themselves would have been a really interesting angle if they had developed it beyond one somewhat anti-climatic scene. Even the love scenes where mild if compared to the amount of heterosexual foreplay, erotic tension and even sex is considered allowable in even partially mild mainstream movies. These critiques are, however, shallow to the degree that they represent more of what I wish I had gotten out of the film and have less to do with the films over all quality. I just wish they had played up the dirtier sides of politics and revolution and less of the obvious. As mentioned, I really did enjoy “Milk” a lot, but I don’t think this is a movie that is going to get anyone to really think hard about these issues, nor do I see how this is particularly different then many prior biopics that I’ve seen, at least plot wise. it’s certainly a hard genre to find lots of originality in. I’ll be checking out “Before Night Falls” soon.

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13 Eric Melin December 13, 2008 at 6:38 pm

“White Milk” is certainly a terrible pun! But to more serious matters:
I didn’t think this movie was tailor-made for audiences whose minds are already made up. Van Sant showed homosexual relationships that reflected both the casualness and the deepness that any relationship can have. The candid nature of some of the sexual innuendo borders on charming. I think this film will loosen up a lot of prople who feel that homosexuality is an aberrant thing. As far as being a bad businessman and going back on his word with White, I think what this actually showed was where Harvey’s prioritites were: He remained true to himself and his ideals rather than selling out. He was a fairly uncompromising figure. Remember the scene where encourages Cleave to sashay up the steps of the City Hall? He wanted to throw his sexuality in everyone’s faces to get them used to it. Attention starved, maybe. Greedy and power-hungry, no. I just think he found his calling and made it the fight of his life. It did ruin relationships, but so be it. That was where his focus was and he made that quite clear. As far as White not getting enough screen time, I think any more would have been too much. Nobody really knows the exact reason he did what he did, so let him remain a mystery. Brolin is so effective because every time you see his character, he’s swung far out to one side or the next, just as a man with depression might do. This kind of open-endedness and subtlety is what makes “Milk” a top-tier biopic.

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14 Eric Melin December 13, 2008 at 6:38 pm

“White Milk” is certainly a terrible pun! But to more serious matters:
I didn’t think this movie was tailor-made for audiences whose minds are already made up. Van Sant showed homosexual relationships that reflected both the casualness and the deepness that any relationship can have. The candid nature of some of the sexual innuendo borders on charming. I think this film will loosen up a lot of prople who feel that homosexuality is an aberrant thing. As far as being a bad businessman and going back on his word with White, I think what this actually showed was where Harvey’s prioritites were: He remained true to himself and his ideals rather than selling out. He was a fairly uncompromising figure. Remember the scene where encourages Cleave to sashay up the steps of the City Hall? He wanted to throw his sexuality in everyone’s faces to get them used to it. Attention starved, maybe. Greedy and power-hungry, no. I just think he found his calling and made it the fight of his life. It did ruin relationships, but so be it. That was where his focus was and he made that quite clear. As far as White not getting enough screen time, I think any more would have been too much. Nobody really knows the exact reason he did what he did, so let him remain a mystery. Brolin is so effective because every time you see his character, he’s swung far out to one side or the next, just as a man with depression might do. This kind of open-endedness and subtlety is what makes “Milk” a top-tier biopic.

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15 RCM December 14, 2008 at 1:27 pm

I’m not accusing Harvey Milk of being someone of questionable character (greedy and the likes) but he was a historical figure who did things that were controversial and important and these people are never the great heroes we make them out to be. The open-endedness is this movie not having the courage to engage the more complicated issues of this story. There is no way to ever no exactly why people do what they do but, I want a subjective perspective on history that challenges how I feel about events that shaped the world today, (again, more about what I wanted and not about this movie’s over all quality). I want something to mull around in my brain. There is nothing in Milk that I couldn’t have read in a book except for the more personal aspects of Milk’s life, which where indeed charming and at time even emotionally powerful, but neither groundbreaking nor very original.

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16 RCM December 14, 2008 at 1:27 pm

I’m not accusing Harvey Milk of being someone of questionable character (greedy and the likes) but he was a historical figure who did things that were controversial and important and these people are never the great heroes we make them out to be. The open-endedness is this movie not having the courage to engage the more complicated issues of this story. There is no way to ever no exactly why people do what they do but, I want a subjective perspective on history that challenges how I feel about events that shaped the world today, (again, more about what I wanted and not about this movie’s over all quality). I want something to mull around in my brain. There is nothing in Milk that I couldn’t have read in a book except for the more personal aspects of Milk’s life, which where indeed charming and at time even emotionally powerful, but neither groundbreaking nor very original.

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17 Phil December 16, 2008 at 11:57 am

Eric, is it my turn to argue with him? Is that what you’re trying to tell me, here?

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18 Phil December 16, 2008 at 11:57 am

Eric, is it my turn to argue with him? Is that what you’re trying to tell me, here?

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19 karl l January 30, 2009 at 12:18 am

All in all an adequate biopic, absorbing in that it’s telling the story that’s been largely forgotten after all the years. Altho the Penn character seemed to lack personal background and depth, the portrayals of gay relationships were at times ‘charming’, but also portrayed to be superficial, certainly secondary to political posturing and careerism. Brolin was concise and very effective, Franco and Luna were sweet and we could certainly see why they were chosen as boyfriends, yet Penn seemed at times a little over the top. For awards buzz, I preferred Mickey Rourke’s work in Wrestler.

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20 karl l January 30, 2009 at 12:18 am

All in all an adequate biopic, absorbing in that it’s telling the story that’s been largely forgotten after all the years. Altho the Penn character seemed to lack personal background and depth, the portrayals of gay relationships were at times ‘charming’, but also portrayed to be superficial, certainly secondary to political posturing and careerism. Brolin was concise and very effective, Franco and Luna were sweet and we could certainly see why they were chosen as boyfriends, yet Penn seemed at times a little over the top. For awards buzz, I preferred Mickey Rourke’s work in Wrestler.

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21 Clark March 2, 2009 at 9:19 am

Just to say I thought this one deserved to win Best Picture (though I loved Slumdog). And Sean Penn really deserved his Oscar.

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22 Clark March 2, 2009 at 9:19 am

Just to say I thought this one deserved to win Best Picture (though I loved Slumdog). And Sean Penn really deserved his Oscar.

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23 Reed June 22, 2009 at 11:24 am

I’m right in line with RCM on this one. Pretty standard biopic that gave me no reason to watch it a second time. Fantastic performances by Penn, Brolin, and Diego Luna. I thought Emil Hirsch was not the right person to play Cleave – not for one second did I believe he was gay, and he seemed like he was just around to move the plot when necessary.

My reaction to this film was much like my reaction to most biopics. It’s an interesting story, but the fact that it’s based on reality inherently limits the way it can be told. The best ones seem to be about people who just aren’t that famous where the director can put more of their own stamp on the story (Shine, Goodfellas, The Pianist, Monster, for example). I’d put this one between a bit behind The Queen and certainly in front of Ray (so, for me, Minor Rock Fist Up).

And for Best Actor? Penn was superb in this movie, but Rourke was easily superber. That’s right, I said superber.

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24 Reed June 22, 2009 at 11:24 am

I’m right in line with RCM on this one. Pretty standard biopic that gave me no reason to watch it a second time. Fantastic performances by Penn, Brolin, and Diego Luna. I thought Emil Hirsch was not the right person to play Cleave – not for one second did I believe he was gay, and he seemed like he was just around to move the plot when necessary.

My reaction to this film was much like my reaction to most biopics. It’s an interesting story, but the fact that it’s based on reality inherently limits the way it can be told. The best ones seem to be about people who just aren’t that famous where the director can put more of their own stamp on the story (Shine, Goodfellas, The Pianist, Monster, for example). I’d put this one between a bit behind The Queen and certainly in front of Ray (so, for me, Minor Rock Fist Up).

And for Best Actor? Penn was superb in this movie, but Rourke was easily superber. That’s right, I said superber.

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25 Eric Melin June 22, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Superber! Agreed!

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26 Eric Melin June 22, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Superber! Agreed!

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