Anybody Christmas shopping for Gus Van Sant this year? If you are, I have the perfect gift: an editor. In all honesty, this is a very difficult film to review. While it is garnering massive praise, as well as generating a ton of Oscar buzz, there are some glaring flaws in the storytelling, compelling as the story itself may be.
The film focuses on Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man to hold major public office in the U.S., as a supervisor for the city of San Francisco. Milk starts out as an insurance salesman in New York, where he picks up a young transplant named Scott (James Franco) on a subway platform and brings him home for sex—this is before the AIDS scare, mind you. Scott convinces Harvey they need a change—yes, they are instantly a ‘we.’ (It’s like that old joke a gay friend of mine from law school used to tell: What does a gay man bring to a second date? A moving truck.) So off they go to The Castro in San Francisco, replete with bathhouses, gay bars and male prostitutes.
Harvey moves into activism like he was born to it, trying to mobilize the gay community to fight prejudice and discrimination. He runs and fails to attain office for years, until finally, after a redistricting, he is elected. With the help of his inner circle, including prostitute-turned-activist Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), he works to advance gay causes. When his agenda causes a power shift within the Board of Supervisors, trouble starts.
This movie is many things. In the wake of the gay marriage ban passing in California recently, it is timely. It is also fair. Director Van Sant paints Milk not as a kind, wonderful public servant, but as a man who works tirelessly for his gay community and doesn’t really care who he hurts in the process. At one point in the film, Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber) refers to him as a gay Boss Tweed. The other thing this film is is slow. At over two hours, there is a lot of back story to sit through. That said, the acting is phenomenal. For me, Emile Hirsch is the real standout, but Oscar nods will be spread throughout the cast. It's an 8.