I hate Hollywood biopics. I truly do. I find the form suspect on almost every level. It requires performances that imitate, stories that compress and contort historical fact, and it clouds the audience's perceptions and memories of the real people and places, often to the extent that the all-important line between reality and fiction becomes irrevocably blurred. So it is the highest praise I can give to 'Milk' that this is the first Hollywood biopic that has caused me to re-evaluate the genre. Gus Van Sant's film seems to do the impossible -- it illuminates our understanding of American political history and one very important man, while creating a fictional world that lives and breathes as its own cinematic beast. And all the while, it stays true to the facts and honors the essential truths of those it celebrates, sans hyperbole and distortion.
Perhaps the smartest thing that Dustin Lance Black's Academy Award-winning script for 'Milk' does is introduce Harvey Milk on the eve of his fortieth birthday, as he begins to transform himself from a self-hating, closeted gay man into a civil rights pioneer. We get no ineffectual attempts to pseudo-analyze Milk's childhood, or a useless digest version of his life to explain away the reasons behind his later, historic deeds. Rather, 'Milk' brilliantly interweaves Harvey's tumultuous rise to the position of the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, against the backdrop of the larger gay and lesbian civil rights movement. In highly entertaining fashion, Van Sant and Black encapsulate the entire social and political upheaval of '70s gay life with Harvey's triumphs and tragedies. It both educates and humanizes -- putting a face on the larger struggles of a "class" of people who are fighting for the simple dignity of cultural affirmation.
If there was ever an Oscar given out for the integration of vintage newsreel footage with newly-shot material, 'Milk' would win it. I don't think I've ever seen a film so expertly use real-life archival footage to not only fill in the narrative and historical blanks, but evoke a time, place, and mood. So complete is the "illusion" that, by the time the end credits roll, and we finally see pictures of the real-life participants who have been portrayed by the actors on-screen, the result is shocking. We've been so thoroughly engaged by the filmmakers verisimilitude in crafting an alternate reality that any differentiation between the historical figures and Van Sant's ensemble is near-impossible. It's quite an accomplishment.
Much praise has been heaped upon the fantastic ensemble of actors Van Sant assembled for 'Milk.' The hyperbole is justified. Penn, who only days before this writing, won his second Oscar for playing Harvey, is transformative. Here is an actor who is the very definition of straight, humorless, and intense. His Harvey is the opposite -- boisterous, loving to a fault, and unabashedly open about his homosexuality. The freedom Penn displays, and his uncanny knack for capturing the real Milk's vocal tics and restrained flamboyant mannerisms, is astonishing. I don't know if, ever hearing the name Harvey Milk again, I will be able to not picture Penn rather than the real man.
No less impressive is the rest of the cast. James Franco, as Milk's great love Scott Smith, is a smart, skilled actor who has rarely been given roles of substance in which to shine. Here he's not quite revelatory, but certainly declares himself an actor who should not be underestimated. Emile Hirsch also delivers a breakout performance as the young activist Cleve Jones. He channels Jones to an astonishing degree, and is virtually unrecognizable in the role. Other smaller parts are also diamonds, particularly Alison Pil as lesbian photographer Anne Kronenberg, Denis O'Hare as the despicable State Senator John Briggs (who equates homosexuality with pedophilia and contagion with equal ease), and Diego Luna in a love-it-or-hate-it portrayal of one of Milk's crazier young charity cases.
But it's Josh Brolin, as Dan White -- the man who would eventually assassinate Harvey Milk -- who may have the toughest tight wire act to walk. Bringing humanity to a deeply conflicted (and possibly closeted) man, Brolin earned his Best Supporting Actor nod by allowing us to understand White's rage and confusion, while still making no excuses his crimes. Watching him and Penn in their scenes together is to witness truly sublime screen acting.
If 'Milk' suffers any flaw, it may be a passing nod to sentimentality. Van Sant has certainly been one of the most obtuse and experimental of established Hollywood filmmakers. But for every daring attack on formal structure and narrative such as a 'Gerry' or 'Last Days,' Van Sant has also turned out a formulaic clunker like 'Finding Forrester,' or his bizarre 'Psycho' redux. In 'Milk,' Van Sant is able to tone down his more anti-commercial tendencies but occasionally lapses into the mawkish emotion of his lesser efforts. The film's candlelight conclusion, while moving, feels a bit too predictable, as do a few fictionalized moments where we are given a heavy-handed reminder of Harvey Milk's legacy (most notably a pair of invented phone calls between Harvey and a suicidal teenager).
Still, I applaud Van Sant for making 'Milk' both artistic and accessible, despite any minor missteps. This film is a rarity -- one that informs us, moves us, and stays true to historical fact while also creating a mythic portrait of a very real, very flawed political hero. The real Harvey Milk once spoke, on the eve of his fortieth birthday, of not feeling as if he had done anything that mattered with his life. By the end of that life, he would launch a civil rights movement and earn his place as a political trailblazer. The greatest accomplishment of 'Milk,' the movie, is that it ensures we will never forget the importance of what Harvey Milk did, and precisely why, at a particular moment in American history, he was absolutely pivotal in changing it.
'Milk' comes to Blu-ray with a 1080p/VC-1 encode (1.85:1). The film is a mishmash -- of newsreel footage, still photography, creative intertitles, and newly-shot material intentionally rough around the edges to recall an appropriately '70s feel. The result still comes across rather well on Blu-ray.
Aside from the vintage footage (which is grainy and desaturated), the majority of 'Milk' is nicely film-like. The source is somewhat grainy, but clean. Colors are purposefully muted, so don't expect anything bright and bubbly. The transfer doesn't suffer from chroma noise, however, and fleshtones are accurate. Detail is as good as can be, with close-up revealing fine visible texture. Unfortunately, contrast is a bit flat in the mid-range, with a washed-out look that dampens blacks and depth. Otherwise, 'Milk' is a fine representation of its source.
Universal gives us a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround tracks (48kHz/24-bit). Like the video, this sounds better than I expected, if the film's sound design hardly lends itself to a big-bang, over-the-top presentation.
Most pleasing is the lovely score by Danny Elfman (sounding quite unlike anything he's ever done before), which has a lilting, full sound that's excellent in DTS-MA. Dialogue is well-recorded and certainly, aside from the score, the main element of the mix. Given the subdued nature of the film, it's not surprising that the surrounds are rather lackluster. There is little in the way of discrete effects, and only spare atmospherics and score bleed. Low bass, too, hardly fills up the subwoofer. Still, for what it is and its understated intentions, this is a well-done presentation.
This is a weak set of supplements. It almost feels like a preview of a true special edition to come. Hopefully, Universal will revisit 'Milk' soon. At least all video is presented in quite sparkling 1080i/VC-1, and looks great.
'Milk' defied my dislike for Hollywood biopics. It's a lovingly crafted, articulate, and passionate portrayal of one man who transcended politics to define a movement. This Blu-ray is nicely done (if understated) in terms of video and audio. Only the weak supplements disappoint -- I suspect we'll see a double-dip in 'Milk's future. As is, this is still worth a purchase for fans of the film, and a must-rent for everyone else.