There are two Gus Van Sants.
There's the Gus Van Sant who's determined to make arty, provocative movies that value originality over narrative. That's the Gus Van Sant who can happily turn out "Gerry" and "Elephant" and "Paranoid Park" and probably doesn't get overly worked up if they don't make a lick of money.
Then there's the Gus Van Sant who seems to get post-modern pleasure out of using the movie-camera as a mimeograph. That's the Gus Van Sant who audaciously copied Hitchcock's "Psycho" and somewhat less audaciously turned his most successful film, "Good Will Hunting," into "Finding Forrester."
The second Gus Van Sant is usually so busy trying to avoid alienating fans of the source material that he can't find time for the first Gus Van Sant to put his signature on the movie.
Scooping up awards by the bucket-load, "Milk" is probably the finest film ever made by the second Gus Van Sant, but watching the movie I never lost the feeling that I had seen it before and seen it better.
Rob Epstein's "The Times of Harvey Milk" won the best documentary Oscar in 1985 and it is a great movie, both an effective biopic, but also an indispensable time capsule glimpse of San Francisco in the 1970s. It also achieves its goals in a tight 90 minutes.
"The Times of Harvey Milk" is so indispensable that Van Sant's "Milk" relies heavily on archival footage assembled for Epstein's documentary and Dustin Lance Black's script follows much of the doc's structure. And even when Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides aren't working to literally reproduce scenes or images from the Epstein documentary, they're aping a similar aesthetic.
My question goes something like this: When Van Sant is excessively dedicated to Hitchcock's "Psycho" and delivers a shot-by-shot remake only with color, random masturbation and a couple cows, critics get all up in his grill about making a movie that didn't need to be made. Why is it that when he's every bit as dedicated to Epstein's documentary and can't even rise to the level of absurdist creativity embodied by those darned "Psycho" cows, he isn't just given a free pass, he's given awards?
[I know the answer to my question, by the way. Van Sant's movie will probably be seen by millions of people who would never hear of Harvey Milk or Epstein's documentary otherwise. But at the time he remade "Psycho," Van Sant made a similar argument about introducing the story to a new generation...]
It's here I need to point out (confess) that I don't actually hate Gus Van Sant's "Psycho." I think it's a ridiculous thing that he felt the desire (or willingness) to do, but I think it makes interesting points about Hitchcock's formal mastery and is creepy at least as often as it's ludicrous.
That's a transition into saying that no matter how negatively I might be approaching the movie from the beginning, I liked "Milk." I liked it a lot. By the end, it moved me. But the things that moved me at the end of "Milk," specifically its final imagery, were taken so totally from the Epstein documentary (and from, you know, reality) that I was jarred back into pondering whether Van Sant had done enough to make "Milk" its own film, rather than an odd scripted version of a documentary.
Like "Frost/Nixon," "Milk" is a film about events on the historical record. Harvey Milk's rise and tragic assassination can, I suppose, only be told in a finite number of ways. After several missteps, Harvey Milk becomes San Francisco city supervisor. Prop 6. Death.
I don't like the decision to lead with Milk's death, as Van Sant does. It reduces Milk to a man who died tragically and builds the entire movie toward that conclusion. Even building the movie around the idea that Milk was a man who knew he was doomed doesn't play out as smoothly as it should, especially since Van Sant goes through the standard biopic progression of Milk's political growth and identity in such standard form.
Differentiating "Milk" from Epstein's documentary gives the movie both its best part and it's most significant failing. Van Sant wants to go beyond Milk to look at the men in his life.
As Scott Smith, Milk's partner, but also original campaign manager, James Franco gives a marvelously understated performance, perhaps the first truly excellent low-maintenance performance of his career. Franco has certainly been very good in "Freaks & Geeks" and "James Dean" and in this summer's "Pineapple Express," but those were all Big performances (though "Freaks & Geeks" had quiet moments). With almost no meaningful dialogue and few demonstrative scenes, Franco takes Smith from being an goof with a perm to transforming him into the conscience of the movie. I don't know how Josh Brolin became the designated supporting award winner for "Milk," but I think Franco is getting the shaft. Moreso even than Penn in the lead role, Franco matures and changes as "Milk" goes along.
So I appreciate Van Sant giving that character time.
I'm less pleased with the amount of screentime given to Diego Luna's Jack Lira, who manages to embody a pair of retrograde cliches -- the hyper-emotional queen and the fiery Latin lover -- without a shade of nuance. Luna's character, Milk's last long-term boyfriend, enters the movie at exactly the wrong time, because he takes emphasis away from Milk's relationship with Brolin's Dan White which, in turn, makes the ending of the movie more confusing than it needs to be. Epstein's doc, without the encumbrance of Jack eating up screen time, actually tries to explain why Dan White resigned, why he decided he wanted his job back and why Mayor Moscone wouldn't let him return.
The supporting universe of "Milk" is well populated. I liked Alison Pill's Anne Kronenberg best in her silent closing minutes, ditto with Joseph Cross' Dick Pabich. Emile Hirsch's Cleve Jones is actually far more interesting if you know Jones' eventual legacy as one of the earliest and more important AIDS activists.
And Penn? He's excellent. It is a studied and Actorly performance -- note the final clip of the real Milk and how much mimicry went into Penn's preparation -- but compared to, say, Penn's shameless Oscar-bait mugging in "I Am Sam" (another studied performance)... Well, it's not a fair comparison. Mimicry and mannerisms aside, Penn's Milk has a sense of humor and a heart. You can see how people would find him disarming and want to follow him.
"Milk" gets an ironic power from the "Look how much things have changed!" celebration on-screen and, of course, the passage of California's Prop 8 off-screen. So that may be the thing that "Milk" has going for it that sets it apart from "The Times of Harvey Milk" -- Timing.