I have what I'd like to call a Death Row outlook on movies for the most part, in that I'm generally interested in the execution above all else. In other words, I'm not of the opinion that the subject matter should either make a film innately "better" or excuse flaws - a well made, exciting movie based on a video game is in my mind superior to a poorly made, boring movie about (just for example) the Holocaust.
"Milk" is the sort of film that provides the exception to my rules, or at least makes me want to make one. On the one hand, it's a wholly conventional, by-the-numbers recent-history biopic straight out of the playbook. You know the drill: cut-in newsreel footage, era-appropriate music, everything timed out EXACTLY as you expect. Never heard of Harvey Milk? No problem - just imagine any recent bio movie if it had been about a gay political activist in 1970s San Fransisco and there you go.
On the other hand... I think that's kind of the point. Director Gus Van Sant etc. all seem to understand that the particular Civil Rights struggle in question here is still very much a struggle, and the principal aim of the film appears to be making a "gay rights movie" that can be understood, accepted and embraced by a "straight" mainstream audience. Call it subversion-by-conventionality, but it's definately there.
The whole thing is anchored by a simply fantastic lead performance by Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, an SF camera store owner who stumbled into activism on the way out of the closet and found he had a knack for it - transforming the city's Castro Street "gay ghetto" into a political powerbase and remaking himself into the firebrand of the then-burgeoning Gay Rights movement. I know people don't "like" Penn... some for better reasons than others, but you can't say he doesn't have the talent to make you forget for a few hours. This is his best work in years - though I'd be remiss not to point out that big chunks of the film are stolen right out from under him by Emile Hirsch as a kid who goes from jaded young hustler to super-saavy political operator as one of Milk's protege's.
It's Penn's show, but the film does do an overall solid job of setting the tone and immediacy of Milk's too-short moment and, yes, framing the events in a way that strips away the sensation and "other-ness" to allow a wider audience to hear it's message. And it's not shy about playing with some of the less clear-cut events in question, such as the unlikely ally by-then-Assemblyman Milk has in then-Governor Ronald Reagan during Milk's career-defining battle against Proposition 6 (a bill to allow the for-that-reason firing of gay schoolteachers.)
Where it stumbles a bit is with Josh Brolin's character of Dan White, a fellow Assemblyman who plays a key but tragic role in Milk's final days. The film wants White to be an important character throughout the story, but never really finds a through-line despite Brolin's winning performance. At the end of the day, he's in too much of the film to have his ultimate motives/issues left so ambiguous.
This is a good one.