Starring Sean Penn, James
Franco, and Josh Brolin
It was Socrates who said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," and I tried to keep that in mind while watching characters pass through the life of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) in a new bio-pic of the nation's first openly gay elected official, directed by Gus Van Sant. Milk is the story of one man, true, a man who helped alter the perception of homosexuals in America, and as a matter of fact, helped alter the rights of those individuals as well. But he is surrounded by friends, lovers, and enemies, those people whose lives Harvey Milk directly affected, and their lives are dramatically unexamined.
Milk moved to San Francisco in the mid-1970s with his boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco). He opened a camera store in the Castro District, a thriving gay community, and within a couple of years was one of those dreaded "community organizers." Politics, or more specifically, the ability to change things through politics, consumed Milk and before long he was running for City Council.
Harvey's new direction left Scott a little bit abandoned, and we don't see much of the fallout of their relationship, but after one "one more run" too many, Scott leaves. He's replaced almost immediately by Jack Lira (Diego Luna), and that character has even less to do in Van Sant's film. The same goes for most of the people working on Milk's campaign, including Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch).
But since this is a movie about Harvey Milk, why does that matter? It matters practically, because we'd like to see interesting actors like Franco, Luna, and especially Hirsch have something to do other than react. More importantly, it matters because these men shaped who Harvey Milk was as much as he did them, or else there's no reason to have them on screen. In Milk, it's not a two-way street. There's no give and take. It's Harvey and whoever the other character is in that scene. And it becomes harder to develop the central character if those spheres of influence aren't explored.
What that can lead to - and Milk comes close to walking on the wrong side of this line - is providing an audience with a life story that is just key moment after key moment with very little connective tissue in between.
There's no doubting the impact of this story, particularly in November 2008, where 30 years after Harvey Milk successfully fought against a law that would forbid gay teachers in California schools, the majority of the voters in that state still believe it's perfectly OK to judge and value how other people love in their own homes and lives. That issue, no matter how important or volatile, doesn't have anything to do with the structure of a movie, which, outside of great use of archival news footage, is pretty staid in this instance. It's framed the way movies like this are usually framed.
Penn, without question, overshadows every other actor on screen, and he gives a remarkable, unconscious performance. And if that were the only thing we looked at in this movie, then it would be a rousing success. It still works, better than it should in some ways, but it's either too much of not enough or not enough of too much.