Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black's Milk suffers the traditional follies of many a failed biopic : turgidness, checklist storytelling, caricature acting, and limited cinematic flourish (cinematographer Harris Savides - whose style is usually distinct - feels handcuffed by Van Sant; was he playing it safe for the Oscars?). Yes, Milk is yet another example of that year-end ready made Oscar pap that keeps killing our cinema experiences. Worse than the calculated summer blockbuster, Oscar bait like Milk smells worse because it packages itself as art and goes unchallenged by establishment critics. As Harvey Milk says to lover Scott Smith, "Politics is theater"... yep, and Oscar season strategizing is the new lobbying.
But put all that Academy pandering aside, and Milk is still a slippery, sloppy mess. Van Sant's social probing into the life of city supervisor Harvey Milk and the Castro area of San Francisco holds so many hiccups and contradictions you begin to question the passion he holds for his subjects. In a speech to campaign staffers and friends, Harvey Milk rails against the respect for personal privacy (he calls for staff members to out themselves and anyone they know), yet a central theme of his campaign is the importance of preserving and protecting civil rights. And despite carefully changing his own image so as to present a cleaner persona towards a broader electorate, Harvey urges friend Cleve Jones to "never blend in". Who is this guy?!?!
Despite the acclaim, Gus Van Sant has never been a friend to admirers of gay cinema. His sole contribution has been in feeding the stereotype of the lustful, promiscuous gay cruiser. True, no matter straight or gay, we are all men, with sex long on the mind, often working towards a game plan to scratch that itch, but Van Sant's depiction of intimate gay relationships eschews our universal capacity to love and focuses on the fleeting fancies of the flesh. After a historic victory for Harvey as the first openly gay man elected to office, two of his staffers celebrate by giving each other blowjobs in a supply closet. When one goes in for a kiss (a symbol of honest intimacy) he's denied and shoved back down to finish the job.
Even the depiction of Harvey's two major love interests are introduced in shallow fashion. Harvey first meets Scotty (James Franco, whose performance is one of Milk's few bright spots) on the steps of a subway station and has him home in bed within minutes. Later, Jack (Diego Luna), a vagabond who stumbles onto the front steps of Harvey's campaign headquarters has sex with him before even knowing his name. Van Sant then shoots their post-coital conversation as is if they've been cuddly, romantic partners for some time... yet it hasn't been two hours. Not only does this feel phony, but, again, it feeds the mainstream stereotypes of gay relationships.
This is antithetical to one of 2008's truly great gay-themed films Before I Forget, where director Jasques Nolot wrestled with the aftermaths in choosing a life of casual sex over a relationship of love. Nolot infused Before I Forget's sex scenes with the weight of the varying consequences and treats we experience when deciding to physically give ourselves to another. Van Sant just treats it as a punchline. His visualizations of sex consist of bouncing light off bare asses and smooth skin. It's emotionless. The only reason Van Sant shoots the naked body continually seems to be for his own gratification.
There are more instances to point out, but the biggest head-scratching moment comes after Harvey gives a rousing speech against religious zealot, and state senator, John Briggs concerning his Proposition 6. From there Van Sant cuts to Harvey Milk murderer, and fellow city supervisor, Dan White, speaking out against nudity in gay pride parades. By juxtaposing these scenes, Van Sant implies that White's comments are oppressive and on equal ground with Proposition 6, but does anyone think public nudity is ok?!? White's comment is valid, yet because of who he turned out to be, Van Sant automatically frames this single opinion as bigoted. It's a microcosm of the total mess of Milk. Clearly, Van Sant needs to stick with the moody, meandering films he produced post-Finding Forrester, because that's where his mind is at.