by TOM NIXON
Earlier in the year Gus Van Sant churned out the desperately self-indulgent Paranoid Park, sporting the kind of disaster in tone characteristic of mid-life crisis filmmaking. Milk unfortunately flies off in the other direction; a by-the-numbers biopic of assassinated gay rights activist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) which tends to just sit there like an old man’s movie, making you long for that distinctive Van Sant seal irrespective of application.
Kind of earnestly respectable, Milk nonetheless sails from event to event with a bland competence that reduces its subject’s struggles to inevitable stepping stones down Castro Street towards martyrdom central. The San Fran gay scene is captured with verve, brimming with life and defiance against a fear-stricken Castro backdrop; but it’s wasted on a surface-skimming document, basking in a man’s achievements and largely ignoring the forces underlying them.
Milk himself is played with nuanced affectation and convincing revolutionary oomph by a considered Penn (he’s too good for the movie, really), the man’s astute, focused political mind well represented; but every element serves as a prism through which his activist qualities can shine, from lovers acting as soundboards for his single-minded conviction to cloying phone calls from a helpless closeted wheelchair-bound kid inspired by his courage.
Milk’s anti-closet leanings are taken to the film’s heart in a way that’s devotedly mainstream, with every nugget of potential subtext either dispensed of or squeezed into the foreground; the screamingly overwrought death scene is made even more so by a ridiculous rack focus aligning Milk with the tragic heroine of one of his much loved operas. There are no fleshed out human beings in the film – it’s a sculpture of a hero carved with a sledgehammer; a surprising moment where ex-lover Scott (James Franco) accuses Milk of being hypocritical, the ultimate closet-case, rings true in the way we’ve had scant contact with the man he’s talking about.
If there is a more complex side to Milk then it probably lies in the fraught mind of Dan White (Josh Brolin), who brings some unease to proceedings with his cracked mask of slimy geniality, but never really progresses from assassin-to-be into something more. There are implications of repressed homosexuality in Van Sant’s use of reflections, yet he forces them into the foreground once again, flattening all turbulence and coasting off towards the Oscars, refusing to grasp at the sky for fear of falling out of the boat.