Paranoid Park, another film in an experimental register that followed such works as Last Days (2005), Elephant (2003), and Gerry (2002). His new film, Milk, is a very different work, one in which Van Sant seemingly returns to his more mainstream works of the 1990s (Good Will Hunting  Psycho , and Finding Forrester ). Clearly, Van Sant wants this more political work to reach a larger audience. However, I do not think he reverts to pedestrian style of his earlier mass audience efforts. In fact, I slightly prefer Milk to Paranoid Park. Both are near masterpieces of a comparable quality (if very different in approach), but Milk's greater political force makes me favour it more.
As a biopic, Milk is most interesting in how it rejects so many of the cliches of this mini-genre. It does not focus on Milk's early life. In fact, Milk's personal life in general takes a backstage to what actually made him interesting: his political activism. This is what the film is really about. Although Milk has been compared to Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992), it avoids the problems to which Lee's film falls victim. Malcolm X becomes so consumed with its lead character's life and personality that it fails to be a really compelling about its political activism. Malcolm X as a figure ends up feeling very safe and even co-opted. This is not the case with Van Sant's Harvey Milk. The biggest surprise about the movie is that it does not play it safe politically. It argues that there is a need for more radical approaches and that middle-of-the-road liberal centrism is not always (or even usually) the real motor for change.
For this reason, I was reminded of The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), a most unlikely and no doubt highly idiosyncratic comparison on my part. Seeing the Castro and the oppression it faced from those in authority (an oppression whose wider history is seen in the opening credits [Figure 1]), I recalled the Casbah under French rule. In particular, the street protests that Van Sant depicts have an edge to them that uses the realist style that Pontecorvo conveys so well (Figures 2, 4-7). Milk's role as mediator is to represent this outrage and make happen the changes the community needs, not unlike the position of the FLN. In the gay movement, there is not the terrorism of the Algerian War, but there is every indication that Milk and his followers would result to this if their civil rights and safety continued to be abused. If Proposition 6, which is a major part of the narrative, had not been defeated in 1978, as the movement first believed, violence seemed a real and maybe necessary possibility. For this reason, Milk is more than just conventional Hollywood liberalism.
A large part of one's evaluation of Milk turns on how you view its more conventional and melodramatic moments. If you see these as Van Sant sacrificing artistic integrity to make his film more palpable for the popular audience, your evaluation will be more negative. But there is a way of reading these moments as working in concert with the more political scenes of collective action. Here I'm reminded of another great political work, the little known Scream from Silence (Anne-Claire Poirier, 1979). There's even a direct connection here with the use of the whistle as a defense against heterosexual male aggression and violence, which Van Sant uses for his most poetic shot in the film (Figure 3). In her tour de force of feminist activism, Poirier establishes a dialectic between Godardian style counter cinema and the melodrama of a suffering female victim. In his article on the film, André Loiselle argues that this combination of distance and emotion makes it both more emotionally resonant and politically effective. While Milk is not in the same category, I do think its melodramatic scenes and devices serve a purpose. For example, the sequence of Milk's murder uses a rack focus in which Milk looks out at his favorite opera (Figure 8). It is rather overblown, but it does reflect Milk and the gay movement's own fascination with the operatic aesthetic and thus is appropriate as a depiction of his final moment. If this and similar tactics, such as the musical score, are seen as an extension of the importance of emotion as well as reason, Milk can be viewed as less compromised and more authentic in its vision, even if that particular vision is not as pure as Van Sant's other recent films.
André Loiselle, “Despair as Empowerment: Melodrama and Counter-Cinema in Anne Claire Poirier’s Mournir à tue-tête (Scream from Silence)” Canadian Journal of Film Studies vol. 8, no.2 (Fall 1999): 21-43.