I’m hard pressed to find much to distinguish what director Gus Van Sant accomplishes in his biopic Milk that was not already accomplished in the Academy Award-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Rob Epstein.
Both are excellent films. Both use archival footage to chronicle the life and times of America’s first openly gay public official. Both use Milk’s taped last will—recorded in the event of his assassination—as the thread upon which to construct the plot. Both regard their central figure as both a devious politician and a true American idealist.
What most obviously distinguishes the more recent film is the bravura performance (another one) by Sean Penn as Milk. Penn breaks my heart in this. Not just because of his character’s fate, which, like the Epstein documentary, opens the film, so that the imminence of death is felt at every step, but mostly because Penn captures Milk’s magnetism and mannerisms, along with, more profoundly, merely human moments—like the thrill of falling in love or fighting for a great, just cause.
Van Sant’s film covers Milk’s life from 1970 to his death in 1978 and appropriately reduces the events subsequent to Dan White’s assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone to a brief captioned epilogue.
Instead, it provides deeper insight to Milk’s loving relationships with Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack Lira (Diego Luna). Van Sant is able to use these relationships to portray a more complex picture of gay life—not pleading for tolerance and equality, as did the documentary—but showing how the personal and the political can converge and clash and presenting us the audience with a fuller panoply of gay characters than we usually get to see at the movies.
Josh Brolin’s nuanced performance as Dan White is also remarkable. Whereas Epstein’s film mainly presents White as the iceberg that would eventually sink Milk’s Titanic, Van Sant’s film shows the pressures of maintaining and upholding hetero-normativity as a political issue and the toll of staking too much of one’s self-identity on one’s being “normal.”
What makes the new film in many ways a more (or differently) elegant film than its predecessor is its attempt to show how, over and over, Milk and White attempt and fail to reach out to each other—especially in a realistic scene of White’s drunkenly pathetic exchange with Milk at the latter’s birthday party—and this is the tragic heart of the film.