There's little debate that the high-profile, star-driven Milk is not just the San Francisco movie of the year, but the decade. What's less certain is the potency and impact of Gus Van Sant's labor of love, in the Bay Area and beyond, this holiday and awards season and gazing into the future.
Milk is a solid, even stirring piece of work, alive and streetwise and politically engaged. But for anyone who knows Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen's powerhouse 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, the narrative feature rarely escapes its shadow. (That's the one reaction that may not especially bother Van Sant, who openly admits he had concerns going in about equaling the emotional wallop of the 1984 doc.) Moviegoers unfamiliar with the non-fiction film, of course, won't sit there comparing the re-creation to the real thing, or Sean Penn to Harvey Milk.
In fact, Penn more than acquits himself, embodying the charm, enthusiasm and persistence so essential to enrolling hundreds and hundreds of people in campaigns for public office and gay rights. My colleague Mark Taylor has written perceptively about the fatal flaw in biopics, namely that the actor (even a movie star) can't quite replicate the magnetic charisma that made his character (Ray Charles, Johnny Cash or Darby Crash in What We Do Is Secret) so iconic. Penn's got that spark, alright, and more: The heart of his performance is the way he throws himself into the character, unlike the overly cool Jamie Foxx or the moodily introspective Joaquin Phoenix, withholding nothing.
My fundamental problem with Milk may simply be that familiarity breeds disbelief. I had no foreknowledge of the real Erin Brockovich and Dr. Alfred Kinsey, or of the formative years of Malcolm X and Ray Charles, and I surrendered to the worlds those films created. I wasn't here in 1978, but Milk was shot in places and spaces I semi-regularly visit, on Castro Street and in and around City Hall. So it's infinitely harder to transport myself back in time, despite all the good efforts of Van Sant and his production team to replicate the San Francisco of the '70s.
It's worth noting that Milk delves much further into its subject's personal life, and the gay lifestyle (if one can use that phrase in a non-pejorative manner), than Epstein and Schmiechen's documentary. Van Sant and his distributor obviously want Milk to cross over and connect with straight audiences, but the director doesn't sell out the reality of '70s gay promiscuity or the purity of queer love in a misbegotten attempt to avoid latent heterosexual queasiness. (I don't think Brokeback Mountain eradicated that malaise, any more than Obama's election vanquished racism.)
The experimental-experiential Van Sant of Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park reverts to the more conventional narrative structure of his fab To Die For, using a key character to relate the story in an extended flashback. A concession to the mainstream? You betcha. Could the film have used some of that beauty, poetry and freedom? I daresay yes. Does the structure work? That's a subjective call, but this fan of the documentary felt that the director and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black overused Milk's poignant audiotape ("to be played only in the event of my assassination") to decreasing returns.
No doubt you have detected a hefty measure of ambivalence on my part toward Milk, which is not the natural or most comfortable position for a critic. I'm not overly concerned in this case because Milk's importance and value reside not in critical consensus but in the degree to which the film is embraced by filmgoers. San Francisco audiences, gay viewers, video-store patrons, high school students. Yes, I'm well aware the movie will get the kind of visibility at Blockbuster (video stores do still exist, yes?) that the documentary never did.
So I turn the mic over to you. Does Milk honor its subject, San Francisco history and the larger cause of gay rights? Does it speak to the dominant majority of straight audiences? Is it a fleeting morsel of pop culture, given a box-office boost by the unexpected contemporary parallel of California Proposition 8, or a film for the ages?
Milk opens Wed., November 26, 2008 at the Castro Theatre -- with two special preview screenings Tuesday, November 25, Friday, November 28 at the Embarcadero and Friday, December 5 at the California and the Piedmont in the East Bay.