“Milk” is a repetitious biopic about the 1970s political career of the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Castro Street,” following Harvey Milk as he grinds through five election campaigns on his way to becoming “America’s first openly gay elected official.” Director Gus Van Sant (best remembered for 1989’s “Drugstore Cowboy”) manages to make even San Francisco look unattractive in his haste to get back to the gerrymandering at Milk’s camera shop.
By the way, what kind of camera store is used as a political clubhouse? Camera shops are normally the worst meeting halls imaginable because they’re crammed with fragile and expensive merchandise. Yet, Milk’s “Castro Camera” is depicted as a shell with little inventory other than orange Kodak film boxes. (My guess: it was mostly a drop-off for amateur photographers who wanted their gay porn pictures developed discreetly -- an easy little business that left Milk with plenty of time on his hands for politics.)
A great tragic story could be made about how Milk’s gay liberation movement unleashed its own nemesis. Within two decades of Milk’s arrival, gay rights had transformed Castro Street into the plague spot of the Western world, with AIDS killing its 10,000th San Franciscan in 1993.
Mentioning a little thing like how industrial scale promiscuity set off the worst American health catastrophe of the last generation wouldn’t be On Message, however, and “Milk” sticks to its political talking points with the same tenacity as its namesake did. ...
Most strikingly, if “Milk’s” screenplay weren’t so relentlessly hagiographic, Sean Penn would be on the hot seat over his stereotypical caricaturizing of a homosexual. Penn’s performance is so flamingly effeminate that you have to wonder whether he got Harvey Milk of Castro Street confused with Harvey Fierstein of Broadway.
During television appearances, Milk came across as a calm, moderately masculine presence, with only slight gay mannerisms. In contrast, Penn’s flamboyant act sets your gaydar clanging like the meltdown siren at a nuclear power plant. That’s important, because Penn’s decision to play Milk as utterly unable to pass for straight robs Milk’s story of much of its interest. The real man, who had served without incident as a Naval officer, chose to come out of the closet.
Here's a clip of the real Harvey Milk from the 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk." This scene is reproduced word for word by Sean Penn in his Oscar-winning role. If you've seen "Milk," you'll note how much Penn gayed it up compared to the original. The documentary shows that Milk had a bit of the "hissy S" sound that is found more often in male homosexuals than in the general public, but Al Gore, who has a passel of kids, has it worse, so you might not guess. Sean Penn, in contrast, plays Milk somewhere between Paul Lynde and Liberace.
Perhaps Milk was as histrionic in private as Penn portrays him as being in public. I don’t know. If so, shouldn’t there be some mention in the script that his public persona was a facade? Watching Milk wrestle with his conscience over whether to drop his on-camera butch act might at least have provided the film with some hint of self-conflict.