Milk is Number 10 on My Top Ten Films of 2008.
As Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politico elected into office, Sean Penn renders such a sympathetic and towering performance that he elevates Gus Van Sant's enjoyable biopic way above its conventional structure and melodramatic trappings. Penned by Dustin Lance Black, “Milk” tries to present a well-rounded, multi-faceted portraiture of Milk as a gay rights activist, open-minded and expansive politician, devoted friend, flamboyant lover, loyal San Francisco resident, and iconic hero, resulting in a middle-of-the-road picture that's overreaching in ambition, but somewhat falls short of completely fulfilling its many goals.
In other words, “Milk” is a very good, but not a great film. The narrative assumes the shape of a survey of gay life in San Francisco in the 1970s, punctuated by major events, indicated with title cards, just before another major tragedy: AIDS epidemic. While many parts of the film are emotionally effective and exuberant in tone, overall, they don't add to a truly satisfying, fully-fleshed portrait of the man, who has become a symbol of the gay movement, or the tumultuously vibrant socio-political times in which he lived. Taking a more balanced approach to a timely but still inflammatory subject, “Milk” doesn't dig deep enough into the psychosexual dynamics of its protagonist.
The main structural device, of Milk tape- recording his thoughts and premonition of early death, interrupts the flow of the already episodic narrative. In at least half a dozen times, Milk commentary is so brief (one or two sentences) that it renders it unnecessary, adding another layer to the otherwise free-floating story.
At the end, you are left with a rather clear but not a particularly poignant profile of a seminal persona that was at once a product of his times, as well as a beacon that went beyond the rigid norms and limitations of his society, wishing to forge a new era defined by more humanistic and liberal agenda.
One Van Sant's great achievement is his refusal to structure “Milk” as a simple formulaic tale of the rise and fall of an “outsider” or “underdog” par excellence, that of a proud, openly gay man. Van Sant has also managed to make a cheerful, buoyant picture, despite the tragic ending of its hero and the many personal tragedies in his life. But perhaps most important of all, “Milk” shows really the value of participatory democracy, the importance of active involvement in the political process—no matter who or how old you are.
Read tomorrow about 2008's Second Best Film.