Although it's frequently acknowledged you can't readily write someone's life into a screenplay, the biopic remains a staple of Hollywood's yearly output, especially around Oscar time. So we can only be thankful that “Milk,” about the gay San Francisco district supervisor shot dead by a political rival in 1978, landed in the hands of a filmmaker such as Gus Van Sant, who is equally adept with groundbreaking independent and more mainstream fare.
Though Van Sant is able to weave the disparate elements that made up his subject's admirable political career as the country's first openly gay politician into a compelling, sometimes moving story, even he has trouble at times pressing a real human life into the service of what has become a dismayingly conventional genre.
“Milk” begins with Harvey (Sean Penn) moving, with a new, much younger boyfriend, Scott (James Franco), to San Francisco's now-infamous Castro district, where Harvey opens a camera shop and begins to organize on behalf of gay rights. Eventually he decides the only way to fight the establishment is to join it. The movie then divides into his struggle to become a district supervisor, and, once he wins, how he'll use his newfound visibility to help fight nationwide anti-gay sentiment.
Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black deserve much credit for the sheer volume and scope of their picture, which essentially includes the whole gay civil rights movement as it relates to Harvey, agitating at the center. As the movie recognizes, gays all over the country were fighting similar battles large and small, and Van Sant deftly frames his subject within the bigger picture, including anti-gay forces such as Anita Bryant.
On the downside, there's not much room left for ordinary people, though rollicking parties of them seem to spring up everywhere. While it seems unfortunate to fault the rare movie about homosexuality for its characterizations, supporting characters tend to be used as symbols and cheap emotional payoff, as in the case of Harvey's second major love interest (Diego Luna), or the random distraught gay kid (in a wheelchair, no less) who calls Harvey for help.
Sometimes, as with a campaign manager played by Emile Hirsch, the feeling is that one too many hot young male stars got invited to the party. No one seems to have a life outside struggling to be gay, which may contain an element of truth but leaves the movie whistling one note. Battles over equal rights deserve undying devotion, which “Milk” displays. What it needed was a little more moderation, and maybe something to shake up the status quo. (R) 128 min. HHHII S