- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Focus Features
Reviewed by David Medsker
or a movie that had such an emotional story at its core, “Milk” is rather bloodless. Its tale of a man’s metamorphosis from closeted worker drone to openly gay political activist, during an openly hostile, anti-gay period in this country’s history (and, truth be told, we haven’t come much farther), has no real peaks and valleys; it just sort of rambles on. This is the kind of movie that should kick the door the fuck in, not knock politely and ask for a cup of sugar.
The movie begins at the story’s end, with Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), presciently, documenting his journey with a tape recorder in the event of his untimely death. He begins with his days in New York City in 1970, picking up strangers in the subway. It’s his 40th birthday, and he guilts a young cutie named Scott (James Franco) into spending the night with him. The two decide to go somewhere that they don’t have to hide who they are, so they head for San Francisco’s Castro district, where the two set up a camera shop and form affiliations with the other gay businessmen. This leads to the support of the local teamster’s union, which inspires Harvey to run for city supervisor. After several unsuccessful campaigns (which ultimately cost him his relationship with Scott), he finally wins a slot thanks to a reorganization of the voting precincts. It’s now 1977, and the religious right is mounting a full-scale war on the civil rights of gays. Milk turns to fellow loner supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) for help, and gets more than he bargained for.
The framing of the story is smart; anyone can hit Wikipedia and read about how Milk’s life ended, so you may as well acknowledge this and let them in on it from the beginning. It also brings a certain tragic element to the story, knowing that we’re watching the last act of a, um, dead man walking. And yet, the movie still doesn’t take advantage of the gift that’s right in front of them. It’s as if director Gus Van Sant went about this movie the way that Oliver Stone goes about his movies on Republican Presidents; if he hits too hard, no one will listen. In the end, he lets his villains off the hook.
Sean Penn is surely looking at another Oscar nomination for his work here, and while it’s a solid performance, it’s more on the level of “Sweet and Lowdown” than “Mystic River.” If anyone here delivers a noteworthy performance, it’s Franco, who shows that he is capable of much more than just playing a stoner or a superhero villain. Diego Luna, on the other hand, wrecks every scene he’s in as Jack Lira, Milk’s neurotic, clingy boyfriend #2. This is the point, of course – Luna’s portrayal is apparently a spot-on impression of the real-life Lira – but it comes at the cost of derailing whatever momentum the movie may have been building up to that point. Brolin has the movie’s most difficult role; Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black make Dan White almost too sympathetic, explaining away his ultimate deeds as the acts of a “confused” man, if you know what I mean. It feels a bit too convenient.
There is nothing particularly wrong with “Milk,” but for a movie about political activism and gay rights, it lacks the outrage and sense of injustice that oozes from the source material. It’s a quiet storm, when it had the potential to be a hurricane. Pity.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Either out of sheer laziness or a complete lack of material, the Blu-ray release of “Milk” doesn’t contain much in the extras department. Friends of the late politician discuss his legacy (“Remembering Harvey”) and the authenticity of filming the 1970s marches (“Marching for Equality”), and the cast/crew offer up interviews on bringing the story to life, but that’s it. No directory commentary. No deleted scenes. In fact, neither Gus Van Sant nor Sean Penn could even be bothered for a comment, which is a shame, since it’s their involvement that made the movie what it is.