Gus Van Sant has made the finest American movie of the year—too bad you probably already missed it. That film was called Paranoid Park. It starred a bunch of unknown teen actors Van Sant found via MySpace, was adapted from an obscure young-adult novel and emphasized dazzling, impressionistic imagery in lieu of cozy narrative hand-holding. Sadly, it got only a fraction of the attention now being heaped upon Milk, this year’s other Van Sant picture, which sticks fast to moldy biopic convention and features Academy Award-winner Sean Penn as doomed San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to win elected office. Milk isn’t bad, by any means—it’s just exactly the film you’d expect it to be, save for the occasional sore-thumb visual flourish. But the verdict is clear: If year-end validation and hosannas are what you seek, give ’em something familiar, grabby and mediocre.
Admittedly, Milk’s inspiring yet dispiriting story has its fascinations—even if they’re better served by the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, large chunks of which are meticulously re-created here. Originally a button-down Wall Street guy, Milk radically reinvented himself in early middle age, moving to the Castro district, San Francisco’s burgeoning gay mecca, and launching a political career as an outspoken advocate of gay rights. After several failed attempts—in which he battled the city’s queer power structure as well as rampant homophobia—he finally won a seat on San Francisco’s equivalent of city council, called the Board of Supervisors. But he’d only been in office 10 months when he, along with Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), was assassinated by disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), whose attorney would later notoriously blame a late-night junk-food binge (the “Twinkie defense”) for White’s actions.
Working from a pedestrian script by Dustin Lance Black (HBO’s Big Love), Van Sant lays out the final years of Milk’s life in time-honored plodding fashion, though he occasionally seems desperate to jazz things up a bit—one violent scene is shot entirely in the distorted reflection of a small metal whistle, a painfully self-conscious touch in this staid context. What little heat the movie generates comes primarily from its actors: Penn sheds decades of Method angst to embrace Harvey Milk’s gregarious personality and inclusive vision, while Brolin manages to capture Dan White’s simmering resentment without resorting to blue-collar stereotype. Their few direct confrontations provide much-needed oomph in a film that otherwise seems content to tick off various items from Milk’s curriculum vitae, one after another, never shaping them into any theme more cogent or affecting than simple martyrdom.
Granted, the results of last month’s election make Milk’s saga feel depressingly timely. Nobody involved with the film could have known that it would open not long after California voters amended the state’s constitution to prohibit gay marriage. All the same, Milk does come across as a stump speech of sorts, expressly designed to appeal to conservative, straight viewers even as it rallies partisans to the cause. James Franco and Diego Luna appear as two of Milk’s boyfriends, but Van Sant isn’t about to risk alienating anyone with depictions of guy-on-guy action—it’s one Ellen-style kiss and then a quick fade to black. (Brokeback Mountain became a cultural phenomenon in part because it had no truck with that sort of ingratiating timidity—people respected the film for treating them like adults.) As a fervent supporter of gay rights, I hope Milk does reach a wide audience, change minds, promote justice. But as a fervent lover of bold, challenging cinema, my vote goes to Paranoid Park.