Movie Review: Milk
He’s brilliant in everything, but he really truly shines when he is portraying a real person. In The Assassination of Richard Nixon, he showed what he can do when he has a real person with a real life and history to draw from.
As Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major office in the state of California, Penn gives a subtle, human and very accurate portrayal, channelling Milk’s persona and mannerisms without letting it descend into parody or simply impression. As a man Milk was strong and courageous but with a deep vulnerability and Penn nails the balance between shy mild mannered man to emotional and angry leader expertly.
Curiously, director Gus Van Sant never really decides which story to tell. The politics of the story, Milk’s rise from idealist to City Supervisor and the struggle therein, is glossed over. Scenes showing Milk and his campaign team discuss how they will run the campaign are often followed by scenes of the team receiving news of defeat. Skimping on the details of Milk’s career dilutes the emotion of his eventual and inevitable victory.
On the flip side however, the film doesn’t delve quite deep enough into who Harvey is and what makes him do what he does. Surprisingly, by the time the film has ended we haven’t learnt a great deal more about him. We know he is a courageous man, a man who will step up to deliver a speech moments after receiving a death threat, but what else drove him to keep going and what effect did it have on him?
There is odd pacing at work as well. The film has a slow burning momentum that remains consistent, neither speeding up or slowing down. It’s peculiar, particularly as the film’s climax is specifically revealed in it’s opening moments. As the viewer, we know what will happen but the film never seems to build to it. Even as the film enters the third act the pace doesn’t pick up.