Why isn’t this movie better? As the titular gay-rights crusader and San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold a major elected office in the United States (a fact Milk repeatedly reminds us of), Sean Penn is unimpeachable. Josh Brolin is equally astonishing as Milk’s straight-laced nemesis on the board and eventual assassin, Dan White. And everybody loves Gus Van Sant, right? Two words: Oscar bait. While Penn’s performance is practically a shoe-in for Best Actor honors this year, Milk adds up only to the sum of its parts: a handful of stellar, battle-tested talent, a lot of acting, and a lot of money from a studio gunning squarely for the Academy.
Milk hews strictly to the biopic formula that has seen so much awards-season success over the past five-to-ten years, from the melodramatic down to the actor-versus-real-life “Where Are They Now?” photomontage. We meet Harvey as he picks up Scott Smith (James Franco) in the New York City subway in 1971, the eve of his 40th birthday, looking for something worthwhile to do with his life. The men decide to shack up more permanently, move to San Francisco, and open a camera shop in the Castro that quickly becomes a hub for the neighborhood’s swelling gay community. As the nascent gay rights movement gathers steam in the years following the 1969 Greenwich Village Stonewall riot (and starts to generate opposition from Nixon’s Silent Majority), Milk finds his "something worthwhile": he launches a groundbreaking public career in S.F. city politics by way of a gay-bar boycott of Coors beer in solidarity with the Teamsters, of all unlikely allies. His private life suffers for his higher calling, with particularly gruesome consequences for one supporting character. Finally, he and Mayor Dan Moscone are martyred in their City Hall offices by the tortured moralistic enigma that Dan White becomes.
Sound familiar? Subtract the sexual orientation, and you’ve got Hollywood’s favorite cliché-yet-bankable plot arc. Milk was unquestionably a great man and an inspirational leader, but could he truly have been such a saint as he appears here? And the supporting actors don’t do much to flesh out the edges of the story. A wealth of great talent is wasted on one-dimensional characters (though they’re all way easy on the eyes): Franco smolders, but who cares when his part is flat enough to be a paper doll? We see P.Y.T.-turned-activist Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) do a lot of dancing and deliver some sassy rejoinders, but considering that the real Jones was Milk’s historical consultant, you’d think his portrayal would have turned out a little less cartoonish (maybe it’s an inside joke?). And As Jack Lira, a guy the serious political types in Harvey’s circle refer to as “the second Mrs. Milk,” Diego Luna flounces around adorably but doesn’t convincingly evoke the real man he's portraying.
Focus Features CEO James Schamus said in a November 21 New York Times piece on the politics of Milk: “The way movies work is not by pushing toward or appealing to a specific electoral position, but by changing the climate of opinion. [...] There is actually a great, old-fashioned American narrative movie here.” And he’s right: much like Brokeback Mountain, Milk is a sentimental by-the-numbers Hollywood genre film that just happens to have a set of gay protagonists. But maybe that’s exactly what America needs right now. Maybe, sadly, Milk needs to be this safe to resonate with enough of mainstream America to accomplish Schamus’s stated aim. It’s impossible to look at the judiciously deployed archival footage of the photogenic anti-gay activist Anita Bryant and not see Sarah Palin or to hear Milk’s inner circle discuss 1978’s Proposition 6 without thinking of ’08's Prop 8.
So the audience is left with a fine but formulaic portrait of a crucial subject for our day and age, which, while educationally and politically worthwhile, is not particularly great as a film in itself. Should you see it anyway? Sure, though if you’re really interested in the facts, rent the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk as well. That film won its Oscar already.