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Safe as ‘Milk,’ and just as bland

“Milk” brings Harvey Milk's story to life, but director Gus Van Sant almost mechanically ticks off all the moments you’d expect to see in a biopic.
/ Source: contributor

For generations of gay people, myself included, Harvey Milk has been hero, martyr, inspiration and role model. The nation’s first openly gay elected official, Milk made a national impact after being elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, from his battles against a statewide proposition that would have made it illegal for gay people to be schoolteachers in California to his call for gays and lesbians to come out of the closet.

He once famously noted, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” And if his assassination didn’t quite accomplish that lofty goal, it certainly made a difference in the lives of millions of people.

Milk’s extraordinary life and death inspired Rob Epstein’s powerful, Oscar-winning documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” but I’ve spent much of my adult life hoping for a big Hollywood retelling of Milk’s story, so that the impact of his life and his, yes, community organizing could move not only straight audiences but also new generations of young gays who might never have heard of him.

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

“Milk” brings the politician’s story to life, but it almost mechanically ticks off all the moments you’d expect to see in a biopic. (Early defeats, check; candidate discovers his voice and builds coalition, check; loved one urges hero to reconsider putting himself through yet another campaign, check.) Watching director Gus Van Sant tamp down everything that makes him interesting as a filmmaker to make a big mainstream movie is rather disheartening, although he’s outdone by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who apparently clicked the “Biopic” button in his Final Draft software and then just filled in the names.

The film begins in 1970 with Harvey (Sean Penn) on the verge of his 40th birthday and realizing that he hasn’t accomplished anything with his life. After a meet-cute with Scott Smith (James Franco), the two move to San Francisco, where Harvey buys a little shop in the Castro, a neighborhood that is just starting to become a gay enclave. Despite some resistance by the old guard and the cops against the people moving into the area, Harvey’s shop becomes a gathering place for political gays and he becomes a vocal presence in the Castro.

Armed with an ever-growing coterie of activists, Harvey runs for the board of supervisors twice and for state assembly once without success. When the San Francisco map is redistricted, however, it appears that Harvey will finally be able to win, even though Scott walks out, saying he can’t endure another election. Once he takes office, Harvey is able to battle Anita Bryant’s national anti-gay crusade in California, never knowing that it would be one of his last great acts before his tragic assassination.

There’s a lot of passion and excitement to this tale, but little of it is conveyed in “Milk.” Instead, we get a rather rote life story of a great American; it’s just that this one happens to be gay. (One friend of mind calls the film “Homosexuality for Dummies.”) And while the visionary and eccentric Van Sant could have elevated this uninspiring screenplay, he seems locked in Lifetime Channel mode except for one brief sequence where a cascade of falling chads represents Harvey’s electoral success.

Sean Penn’s performance is already being overrated to the skies, but it’s merely adequate; if you’ve seen “The Times of Harvey Milk” — and if you haven’t, do so, immediately — you know that the real guy was much funnier and more charismatic than Penn’s adenoidal creation. It’s Franco who really steals the show, turning a two-dimensional trope into a real human being, and his exit from the story is deeply felt. Also noteworthy are the brief supporting turns by Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin, as well as the work of cinematographer Harris Savides, who does as much as the wigmaker and the wardrobe crew to give “Milk” a very 1978 look.

If “Milk” moves people in this post-Proposition 8 era to open their minds about gay people in American society, or if it inspires those gay people to take to the streets to fight for their rights, then blessings upon it. All I know is that I can never get through “Times of Harvey Milk” without a handkerchief, while Van Sant’s “Milk” left me forlornly dry-eyed.