Harvey Milk’s story is the stuff from which biopics are made. He faced discrimination, became a leader in his community, had a series of failed campaigns, was finally the first openly gay person elected to major office, and was murdered by a disgruntled fellow politician. There’s tragedy and triumph, all surrounding Important Social Issues.

Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant’s depiction of that story, however, never really rises to the challenge. Compelling actors and back story make the movie watchable, but it doesn’t seem particularly special. If, as some people claim, 2008 is a relatively weak year for Oscar movies, this movie’s awards success might be helping the notion gain traction.

Milk’s primary weakness is its inability to provide context.  It is never quite clear who, exactly, is impacted by Harvey Milk.  This vagueness starts with his coterie, none of whom are given any discernible character traits.  Other than his two boyfriends, who maybe get one apiece.  There’s never any sense of how many gay people were living in San Francisco, or how many people (gay or straight) supported Milk.  Or didn’t.  The movie hints at Milk uniting the gay vote and turning it into a force, but what was the magnitude of that force?  Perhaps Van Sant attempts to answer these concerns with his insertion of stock footage from the era.  But it only serves to weaken the film’s tenuous creation of an environment.

That’s not to say the movie is a failure.  It has plenty of solid moments.  The film has some funny bits and some touching ones.  It is paced well and is fortunate to have a great cast.  Milk, perhaps obviously, advocates gay rights, but the message is generally used to enhance the film, rather than take it over.

I’ve probably made it clear I’ll be disappointed if/when the movie grabs Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nominations.  The Academy has done far worse, but I just don’t get why Milk is considered great, and not merely good.

At this point, I’m all for Sean Penn and James Brolin to be nominated for Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively.  I love me some James Franco, but I’m not sure he’s deserving here.  Penn as Milk, is probably the highlight of the movie (other than the doggie, naturally),  and he certainly makes the movie much more interesting.  Brolin’s character is another supporting one who deserved to be better fleshed out.  But he turns Dan White into the most intriguing character in the movie, one who provokes the most thought.  For me, anyway.

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