Martin Luther described Christians as "simultaneously saint and sinner." But biopics conventionally separate the two, making their subjects sinners for the first portion of their lives and then saints after some redemption experience. The formula is so predictable that the whole genre was effectively parodied by last year's Judd Apatow comedy Walk Hard.
While Milk, the new Gus Van Sant biopic of gay politician Harvey Milk, doesn't follow the formula, neither does it improve upon it. The film idolizes its subject, whitewashing a complicated man into a saint with no apparent flaws. It makes other biopics seem multidimensional.
That said, Milk (rated R for language, some sexual content, and brief violence) has one huge saving grace: its uniformly remarkable cast. Sean Penn disappears into the role of the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California and will certainly be nominated for an Oscar. The performances of Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, and James Franco are breathtaking and subtle, obscuring the many flaws of the heavy-handed and trite screenplay.
Much of the plot deals with the defeat of a 1978 California proposition that would have required school boards to fire any homosexual teacher or any supporter of a gay teacher. Christians are portrayed as cartoonish hatemongers and never as actual people with legitimate concerns.
The direction of the film is uninventive, directly copying the structure of The Times of Harvey Milk, the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary. It opens with the same archival footage of then-San Francisco Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announcing the assassinations of Milk and Mayor George Moscone. And it uses Milk's final testament, recorded on audiotape, to organize the film.
While all biopics compress facts and skip inconvenient details, Dustin Lance Black's screenplay goes beyond that to invent history in service to the film's agenda. Milk's assassin, fellow supervisor Dan White, is portrayed as a closeted homosexual driven to kill by his own insecurities. The historical record indicates he was a mentally disturbed man on the brink of financial ruin who was engaged in a vicious political feud with Milk and Moscone.
The film's considerable flaws won't matter much. It's already critically acclaimed, a development that's more a result of the film's political agenda and acting performances than of overall merit.