I went into MILK with the impression I was about to see a film that was a typical Oscar candidate. Packed with acting talent and taking on a worthy topic and an interesting character as its subject, MILK reeked of another Hollywood-does-arthouse affair. When I came out of the cinema, I hadn’t let go of that viewpoint. The story was tight, the dialogue flowed comfortably but rarely pushed the boundaries, and all the big names put in strong performances that genuinely brought the characters to life. It was only after a few days that I really appreciated what a well-crafted and complete film this is.

The biography of Harvey Milk, gay rights activist and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, is structured through a speech he recorded to be played only in the event of his death by assassination. This structural decision was superb because it instantly makes you conscious of the poignant fragility of the story as it unfolds. Each chapter is digested as a fleeting moment of a life cut short, and this is a dimension that I cannot overemphasize the importance of.

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When we meet Harvey for the first time, as an insurance salesman meeting a lover for the first time, Sean Penn instantly turns on the boyish charm with alarming ease. It is impossible in that moment not to be won over as he playfully beguiles the object of his attention. From then on, as he decides to dump his mundane job and start living, Penn’s unwavering portrayal of kindness and warmth cannot fail to win over even the most cynical of audiences. The supporting cast in the gay community do an equally good job of alternating between angry indignation at the failure of the establishment to recognise their rights as human beings and exuberant pleasure at being able to act freely in the haven created in Castro. But the highlight comes with Josh Brolin’s role as Supervisor Dan White: a white catholic right-winger, a Board of Supervisors peer, and by far the most intriguing character on show. Brolin, who is on fire at the moment, delivers a performance that conveys the layers of tension both acting on and seething within his character in a remarkably small amount of screen time.

What’s more, the film looks great too. A while back I was moaning about RIVALS which, I maintain, ruined anything it had to offer by making the film a wholesale replica of a 70s cop film. In contrast MILK puts us in the same decade by getting the wardrobe spot on, carefully choosing the props, and liberally smattering the action with original news reports from the time – complete with Walter Cronkite. By not making the content of the era without stylising the medium itself as such (lower quality grain, different colour saturations etc) we live the period with the cast, without being constantly reminded that this is a period piece. A crucial balance that is reached perfectly here.

However, for all this praise I still have a personal issue with this kind of film. I’ll always recommend a movie with high production value, well thought out performances and worthy source material, but something rings a little hollow in it all. I like a film that packs a punch, says something amazing or really puts you through a powerful experience. A lovingly sculpted portrait like this is, for my money, better appreciated in an art gallery or a novel – where there is more time and space to digest the meaning than in a movie where it is easier for the art to overpower its subject. Ironically, to really get to the core of this interesting and important character and his time, the film would have benefited from adding some grit to the constant praise and positivity, a grounding reality to make the man whole. This would draw attention away from Sean Penn and onto ‘the real Harvey Milk’.

The bottom line: a beautifully crafted account of a truly important life that is acted with subtlety and flair, but the film itself overshadows the content and its message.

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This article was first posted on December 15, 2008