“Politics is theater,” observes Harvey (Sean Penn) in Gus Van Sant’s terrific Milk. And sometimes, of course, theater — or cinema — is politics. When they first embarked on this project, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black could never have anticipated that 2008 would see the election of a minority candidate and former community organizer, running on a message of hope, to the highest office in the land, nor could they have expected that Obama’s historic victory would coincide with the passage of Proposition 8 in California, delivering a major setback for the gay rights movement in the United States. But this is Milk‘s political moment, and the improbable confluence of events surrounding its release will undoubtedly define the film’s reception.
Some are likely to view Van Sant’s movie as a crushing rejoinder to Prop 8, others as an Obama allegory, and then there will be those who see it simply as a flawed but expertly assembled biopic. Each viewer’s reaction to Milk will likely depend on his or her political orientation and investment in its subject; when a film speaks so directly to its culture and its moment — even if its timeliness is coincidental — how could it be otherwise?
There is a tendency in film criticism to assume a position of faux objectivity — to pretend that we have set aside the details of our personal lives and our idiosyncrasies in the service of a fair, unbiased assessment. And though critics should try to write for as many audiences as possible, we should always remember that we still speak as an audience of one. In the case of a movie like Milk, which so directly addresses us socially and politically, abstracting from our own highly individual reactions misses the point.