But doesn't all this sound a bit too much like wishful thinking? While the critical-objective side of writers like Lee and Hoberman is quick to point up the film's obvious shortcomings, the liberal-humanist side can't help but rally around the work's undeniable social import, especially given the recent passage of California's loathsome Proposition 8. In short, Milk is a film that people - critics and public alike - want to get behind, a celebration of gay civil rights at a time when those rights are once again under attack and a sympathetic portrait of a minority politician whose unlikely rise to power mirrors that of our incoming president. And if that film is schematically organized and aesthetically drab what does it matter? What counts is that it bears a few superficial resemblances to our current political situation.
Or at least that's how it seemed to me before I saw the picture. For one thing, the film - its cookie-cutter structuring and occasional moments of bathetic indulgence notwithstanding - isn't quite as conventional as advertised. Although Van Sant forgoes the aesthetic flourishes of his recent films, the director finds plenty of ways to bring visual interest to what has to be considered a fairly mundane screenplay. From his skillful mixing of both real and re-created historical footage into the film's everyday world to his fluid tracking shots around Milk's apartment and camera shop which link the protagonist and his fellow activists in a communal plane of visual continuity, Van Sant has a knack for calling on the appropriate aesthetic strategy for a given situation. Then, the film is genuinely rousing, a work of carefully contrived public art that, while wary of alienating its audience, presents, convincingly, a figure of great appeal and integrity, telling his story with both ample good humor and inevitable sadness. That this story happens to mirror recent political events is clearly not incidental, but it scarcely accounts for the film's power. Credit instead Van Sant's obvious feel for the material and his understanding of what makes his protagonist such an indelible public figure as well as star Sean Penn's natural charisma - even as the latter's standard screen persona is largely submerged in the Milkian wrinkles of his scrunched-up forehead.
Which is all to the good, but where the film finally runs into trouble is in its conflation of the public and the private, a necessary strategy given Harvey Milk's insistence on coming out as an essential political act, but one for which Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black seem ill prepared. Milk is at his best as a populist figure, inspiring San Franciscans from his soapbox or leading rallies through the streets, but when the attention turns to his private life, the lack of depth in Penn's characterization becomes quickly apparent. Which is why the film feels so leaden whenever Milk's relationships - first with subway pickup/turned campaign manager James Franco, then with emotionally unstable roustabout Diego Luna - take center stage, draining off whatever momentum Van Sant's built up to and wallowing in the kind of character's-calling-takes-toll-on-personal-life nullity that tends to give biopics a bad name. To be sure, there's a certain transgressive thrill in seeing two straight male movie stars smooching on camera in a big budget Hollywood flick - and just as Milk's political activism is based on getting people to come out, forcing people to realize that they actually know gay people, so Milk's is based on forcing audiences to accept the physical embrace of a pair of popular actors - but beyond the fleeting seconds of on-screen intimacy, the complications of Milk's relationships register as little more than a dull distraction from the meatier business of the character's public agitation.
But setting these moments aside, Van Sant has crafted a fine bit of popular entertainment whose flaws should not be overlooked, but perhaps should not be made too much of either. And yes, Milk may be a movie of our times, at least superficially, but I wouldn't want to make too much of that either. It's probably unlikely to have any kind of significant social impact and it's best if we take the movie for what it is: a rousing, well told story with a charismatic, but ultimately inscrutable central figure, a film that avoids the rote feeling of so many biopics but can't entirely escape the structural flaws of that genre either. If in the end I liked Milk in spite of myself, and if finally I sound rather defensive about it, then I guess that is to say that I understand where critics like Lee and Hoberman are coming from after all.