Milk: The Further Misadventures of Sean Penn

Aside from being one of the timeliest biopics ever produced, the film is full of witty writing, an arresting visual style, and a smorgasbord of terrific performances. However, it pains me to say that the timeliness is surely the only reason this film is being regarded as highly as it is. It never really goes too far past your standard conventional biopic, and while it’s nice to see Sean Penn in a role that doesn’t require wrenching of fists and gnashing of teeth, his performance is more theatrical than the rest of the cast—some feat, when the entire cast is portraying wildly flamboyant men. If Sean Penn had shown exuberant laughter and a saintly soul using the same emotive energy as the other actors around him, the movie would have been far more effective.

But then again, this is a proud tradition of Penn’s. There’s no doubt that he is a powerhouse performer, capable of carrying grandiose roles through to the fullest extent, but if it’s at the expense of the story, then what good is all that passionate emoting? Penn acts so well that you sit in the audience and never lose yourself in the character—instead, you marvel at Penn’s acting. It’s completely detrimental to the storytelling, and is the cinematic equivalent of ballhogging. In Milk, Van Sant lets the camera linger on Penn’s face as it twitches, twists, and shouts in a manner that suggests that Harvey Milk was actually Ace Ventura’s political activist little brother. This is not to suggest that Penn’s performance isn’t honest, or that he’s trying to steal the attention—maybe it’s his theatrical training, and since directors and critics are so enamored with his full throttle emotional outbursts, why would he adjust to the same level as his co-stars? When was the last time he acted using the same energy level as his co-star? Sweet and Lowdown, in 2000?

Watch Penn’s scenes with Josh Brolin, playing Dan White—note that I remember the character’s name, since from the second Brolin stepped on screen, I never once thought of him as Josh Brolin. Watch James Franco’s scenes as Scotty, Harvey Milk’s boyfriend. Maybe it’s unfair, because the two of them play less exuberant characters, and perhaps Milk is trying to wring some exuberance out of them. However, to me, it felt more like Penn trying to wring some exuberance out of me as the viewer. Brolin delivers a fantastic performance, and most everyone I’ve spoken to about the film said they’d love to see a movie about Dan White—his performance has a complexity that Penn’s deification of Harvey lacks.

Yet maybe this is Van Sant’s fault. He seems less interested in Harvey Milk as a human being, opting instead to view him as a symbol of a movement. We’re missing great levels of conflict within Milk, because Van Sant wants to show Penn pumping his fist and making speeches, or Penn staring at the TV motivated to move his cause forward. They ever so lightly touch upon the fact that Milk liked to “save” young boys, and one late tragedy to one of these boys doesn’t seem to have a great deal of effect on Milk, save for a key scene immediately after of Sean Penn wrenching his fists and gnashing his teeth. A couple of character flaws, or emotional complexities regarding something other than Milk’s politics, would have gone a long way towards making the character of Harvey Milk more interesting. Also, perhaps Van Sant just likes to choose projects where this is convenient, but this is at least the fourth Van Sant film I can recall where the killer/suicide victim is a repressed or closeted homosexual (and at least the second time where there is no real historical truth to these insinuations, to my knowledge)… can’t people who commit violent acts simply be angry or displeased with their position in life? Granted, this film more than any other recent Van Sant film only implies that the killer is homosexual, and doesn’t include a scene of the killer trying to make out with Milk or something more heavyhanded. So perhaps there’s a backhanded compliment within this review.

I feel like the whole film is worthy of admiration in a backhanded way. Its subject matter is priceless and timely, even if it’s not perfectly executed. Sean Penn’s performance is great, even if it’s so “great” that it seems showy next to the rest of the talented cast. Van Sant’s direction is compelling, even if they ignore Milk’s human characteristics and instead deify him and the movement he stands for. Nothing in the film is as affecting as the real-life footage that Van Sant splices into the film. Should this be to the credit of Van Sant? Or is this an insult to the quasi-fictional directed bits that are overshadowed by footage a man with a camera shot in the 1970s? Either way, the film remains an important yet flawed biopic of an important but flawed man’s life. It deserves to be seen, but much like Harvey Milk, the film deserves to be seen for what it is, not simply deified for what it stands for. If only the film had shown its subject that sort of respect.

~ by russellhainline on December 17, 2008.

One Response to “Milk: The Further Misadventures of Sean Penn”

  1. I agree that the film focuses on Milk as a symbol of the movement rather than as a human being, and I also was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to know Milk, the human being, better. I think you’re a bit too tough on Sean Penn, though.

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