Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Milk is good ... not great

"Milk" has been getting over-the-top reviews in some circles, but not here. It's a good, solid, somewhat stolid biopic with a terrific (Oscar-caliber) performance from Sean Penn.

Penn fully inhabits the character of Harvey Milk, who was elected a San Francisco city supervisor in 1978 -- the first openly gay elected official in the U.S., it is believed. Penn's Milk is a charismatic but flawed figure, who gets what he wants through needling and, when necessary, some overtly political maneuvering. When the mayor jokingly tells Harvey he sounds like Boss Tweed or Richard Daley -- not exactly a compliment to be likened to two of democracy's seediest politicians -- Harvey is pleased, noting what a thrill it is to have a homosexual wielding political power.

Milk can be flirtatious and conniving, but ultimately his dreams are, by today's standards, fairly benign: he wants gay people to be accepted, or at least tolerated, and believe that there's nothing sick or wrong about them. It'd be interesting to know what he thinks of today's push for gay marriage rights.

"Milk" the movie arrives at just the right time in the national zeitgeist, debuting a month after a California statewide proposition again outlawed homosexuals from marrying, after the state supreme court briefly declared them valid.

I'll be candid in saying that I think a lot of critics' sentiments for this film are tied up in a larger issue that likely was never a glimmer in Harvey Milk's mind. Gay culture has largely reveled in eschewing traditional straight culture, and it's only within the last decade that a large segment has demanded their right to marital union. Let's not make the mistake of conflating what Harvey Milk might have done had he not been assassinated with what he did achieve during his lifetime.

Director Gus Van Sant has spent most of the last few years making strange little experimental films like "Elephant" and "Gerry" that most people did not care to see. (Here's my 12-word review of "Elephant": A powerful 20-minute short film interrupted by an hour of walking.) He returns to traditional narrative filmmaking with gusto, and adheres to the formulas with too much obedience. The swelling music as Harvey leads a street protest, a touching scene where he connects with a stranger, the use of actual video footage to lend the events veracity -- we've seen it done a million times before, with singers, generals and writers, and now we're seeing it done with a gay politician. It's Hagiography 101.

I can't end this review without a word about Harvey's second boyfriend Jack, a spacey Latino who just sort of shows up one day and is living with him and hanging off him the next. The character (played by Diego Luna) has absolutely no substance or depth. He exists in the story for only one reason, so that we can see him come to a tragic end. Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black make no attempt whatsoever to flesh him out, or even make him plausible.

I give "Milk" three stars out of four.

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