Dir: Gus Van Sant
I’ve seen a good few of Gus Van Sant’s films now, from the unspeakably boring Elephant, to the overrated Good Will Hunting and the quite monumentally pointless Psycho remake, so his name on this biopic of Harvey Milk didn’t inspire confidence, but Milk is an intriguing figure; the first openly gay man to be elected to major office in the US, and the assembled cast promised good things.
Directorially Milk is somewhat anonymous. Van Sant puts away the vérité stylings that have marked (and marred) his work since Elephant and opts for a much more conventional approach in both shot selection and pacing. He also makes clever and illuminating use of archive footage, without making its use feel like a gimmick. Van Sant, as a gay filmmaker, could easily have used this film to make a big personal and political statement but, while the film obviously takes Milk’s side in the political conflicts it depicts, it doesn’t batter you with the message.
Perhaps Gus Van Sant’s most valuable contribution to the project is his role in drawing out a set of excellent performances from a large and eclectic cast. Sean Penn is Milk’s best hope for Oscar gold, and it’s hard to disagree with his nomination. The voice sounds like a stereotype, but the performance isn’t. The film may be entirely uncritical about Milk, but Penn manages to step away from the idealisation of the character and make him human. Also, for an actor who appears so aggressively heterosexual both on and off screen he makes for a surprisingly convincing gay man, and has especially strong chemistry with James Franco.
Josh Brolin, whose career has been through a Lazarus like renaissance of late, is also Oscar nominated as Dan White, Milk’s fellow city supervisor and eventual assassin. Brolin is typically excellent as the buttoned down, uptight, fiercely traditional White, but manages to make this bigoted, deeply unattractive, man understandable if not sympathetic. The aforementioned Jamees Franco very nearly steals the film as Milk’s lover Scott Smith, it’s a vibrant and engaging performance from a man who, with every passing performance, is growing into one of Hollywood’s most reliably interesting actors.
Milk has plenty to say, and at a time when a minority has just been elected to the highest office in the land, but a gay rights bill voted down at the very same poll, it’s an extremely relevant work. It’s not an issue movie though; it depicts the issue and the campaign against Proposition 6 (which would have allowed schools to fire teachers purely on the basis of their sexuality) as an event in Milk’s life, rather than using it to lecture the audience. The same balancing act is present with the movie’s depiction of the various gay relationships, and it is just as well struck, with Van Sant neither shying from depicting them nor obsessively focusing on them, instead it’s simply matter of fact.
Moving at a brisk pace, with well-used narration from Penn, Milk is always engaging, particularly if you don’t already know the events of the story. It’s more an actor’s movie than a director’s, but that works very much in its favour, given the excellent performances.