Milk was a big deal for Gus Van Sant, and it shows. With everything in the film so articulate and well-meaning and specifically structured from his end and the end of the actors, it is plainly obvious that he wanted a roaring return to Hollywood form with a “grand old film” of the classical biopic variety. A film that, in other words, could please the middlebrows. Conceptually, who can blame him? But, in the abstract, Van Sant playing to the masses is a slight shame nonetheless; he has always been at his most compelling whilst eschewing Hollywood cinema and going full-blown psychotic indie director. Milk was his “hand me awards now please” film, and while Van Sant is undoubtedly a director of award-worthy ambition, the sort of film one has to make to garner awards is usually of the less-than-deserving stature. That Milk actually happens to be a pretty nifty biopic that does everything it can to lightly twist or avoid some of the too-stately biopic credentials in its bones is a nice bonus for him, and for us. But I am not sure if it was his intention. Milk is a good film, but it may be an accidentally good one.
First, and it must be said, I am not actually convinced that Milk is nearly as radical as it seems on the surface. At a basic level, this story of openly gay San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Harvey Milk, and one of the first openly gay major politicians in US history, casts Sean Penn in the role (that Sean Penn is in the role probably says all you need to know about its Big Film credentials) and largely functions to recreate and Old Hollywood biopic with a subject that could never have flown in an Old Hollywood biopic. Which is an interesting idea, to say the least, but it does essentially mean that the film is, at some level, an attempt to make a deliberately tepid film if you consider it on the merits of its filmmaking.
To put it another way: Milk is a tepid Hollywood biopic with a very much non-tepid man in the central seat. Although that man’s story is magnetic and important, casting the film as a run-of-the-mill biopic is worthwhile only in a theoretical, abstract sort of way, as if to say “what would it be like to make this sort of film with a character never afforded this sort of film before in Hollywood history”. It has a sort of “making amends” tone, and none of the material is especially challenging at a filmic level excepting its habit of thrusting a non-conservative subject onto a very traditional, conservative film style, thus entering that subject into the pantheon of the traditional.
Even still, the challenge to the traditional biopic form is passing and light, and Milk is not meaningfully invested in doing away with this Hollywood style. Much like the affirmative side in the gay marriage debate, it wishes to retain and sanctify the traditions of the US (individualist hagiography by way of biopics in one case, marriage in the other) whilst merely incorporating non-traditional humans into that tradition. Which doesn’t really do as much as we might think in either case to truly challenge the status quo. As a lively film, it is much worse for wear, and Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay does virtually nothing to emerge from the tired tropes of its genre or to truly investigate Harvey Milk the person or Harvey Milk the phenomenon.
That being said, if we accept the tradition and peer into the curtains of Hollywood Biopic cinema, a great many cast and crew members conspire to actually make a good film with Milk, and that they do. Penn and co-stars are, for one, uniformly excellent, with Josh Brolin in particular riding his success with No Country for Old Men the previous year to emerge as much more than James Brolin’s beefcake son. The cinematography by Harris Savides, meanwhile, is best-in-show, being sufficiently grungy and even playing with film grain to recreate a grimier ’70s San Francisco than any other film on this subject would have attempted. Almost single-handedly, he makes the film seem much more challenging and confrontational than it really is. In the editor’s chair, Elliot Graham keeps the film moving along at a great clip, just enough to bat away some of the stodgy exposition and watery dialogue always threatening to pop through the script and into the film. All of this together is a very well-crafted film for a very important man and a very important culture (the lived-in depiction of the San Francisco LGBT culture in the ’70s is an edges-of-the-screen pleasure throughout). It isn’t exactly riveting or challenging cinema, but it is nonetheless easy to appreciate, within its limits, even if it is only ever easy to do just that.