If a movie were simply the sum of its great performances, then Gus Van Sant’s Milk might easily become a classic. It’s tough to find fault with Sean Penn’s uncanny performance as the titular politician and gay activist martyr; and it is just as difficult to see flaws in Josh Brolin’s compassionate turn as Milk’s rival and assassin, Dan White. Even Diego Luna, as the hero’s flighty drama queen of a lover, has a memorable scene in which he retreats to a literal closet. But there is more to Milk than these tremendous actors, and therein lies the problem.
In one of the more perceptive reviews of the film, The Los Angeles Times‘s Kenneth Turan wrote last week that Milk‘s “most unexpectedly moving footage is what looks to be authentic newsreel material of police raids on gay bars, with people furtively hiding their faces to protect their closeted lives. This film wants us to understand both how far we’ve come as a society and that it is still not far enough.” San Francisco in the 1970s was never entirely the progressive queer idyll of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, and Milk‘s use of archival material is indeed a timely reminder of the Left Coast’s long history of intolerance.
But the director’s banal approach won’t tell you anything you don’t already know. Many commentators have noted that Milk occasionally follows the familiar conventions of the biopic, which might give you the impression, incorrectly, that the movie ever deviates from them. Make your own checklist–weepy and manipulative orchestral score (thanks Danny Elfman), foreshadowing dialogue (“I don’t think I’m going to make it to 50”), supposedly accurate period costuming (Emile Hirsh wears an American Apparel hoodie throughout), celebrity cameos (Jeff Koons)–and you’ll see that all the necessary trite elements of a Best Picture are accounted for. If that isn’t mawkish enough, the film is also narrated retrospectively by Penn’s Milk himself, as he makes tape recordings meant to be played in the event of his death–a device adopted from the 1984 documentary, The Times of a Harvey Milk. Van Sant’s latest campaign for the Oscar seal of approval ought to have been called Canned Milk.–Benjamin Strong