Milk – Lack of Internal Conflict
Milk features standout performances and worthy subject matter of real historical significance. The film, however, is severely lacking in story on several accounts. It is a object lesson on the need for conflict, conflict, conflict. Too much backstory compromises the emotional power of the film.
The story is too episodic. We watch Milk setting a goal and achieving it for the vast majority of screen time. Sean Penn’s performance is a stunning achievement but it is constrained by the screenplay’s step-by-step by the numbers plot. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) moves to San Francisco and becomes a Gay Rights activist. He runs unsuccessfully for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and is elected on his third try. Milk becomes the first openly gay man in America to be elected to public office.
We see Milk overcome obstacles in his quest for elective office but those are all external obstacles; prejudice, lack of funds or lack of broad-based support. External conflict is the least emotional kind of conflict. There is little relationship conflict in the film and no inner conflict. These kinds of conflicts are the most intense and powerful for an audience.
On the relationship front, Milk breaks up with his long-time partner, James Franco (Scott Smith) over political ambitions. This is handled in a few short scenes, none of which have any real heat. It is a sad but amiable dissolution of the relationship and the two men remain committed and affectionate friends through-out the film. Not much intense conflict there.
Franco and Milk’s other friends disapprove of Milk’s new partner, Jack Lira (Diego Luna) a flamboyant needy younger man. Lira complains of feeling excluded but we never see any real rejection, cruelty or even nastiness on the part of Milks friends. Nor do we see much conflict between Lira and Milk. Tepid exasperation on Franco’s and his friend’s behalf, brief child-like petulance on Lira’s behalf and tolerant bemusement on Milk’s behalf is about as intense as the relationship conflict gets. When Lira kills himself, this big emotional moment simply isn’t earned. Where are the cat-fights, personal fireworks, desperation, deep frustration or anger that leads to that intense dramatic moment? It’s just not there.
Most troubling is the lack of internal conflict. Milk is portrayed as a smart, caring, committed, passionate, inspirational and good-humored man through-out. Were all his political ambitions noble and pure? Were there no darker impulses at work– selfishness, ego, pride or hubris? We never see him struggle with his baser and his more noble desires for political power.
Nor do we ever see Milk wrestle with himself. He never struggles with two competing values. He appears to sacrifice his love relationships to his political ambitions but we don’t we see him struggle to make that choice. Break-ups of deep caring relationships don’t just happen. There is conflict leading to a moment of personal choice– This relationship isn’t worth my time or I want something more. Where are the tears, recriminations or the uncertainty that politics is worth sacrificing some who loves you? Instead, we simply see the report, after the fact, that a relationship, has ended (tragically in suicide in Lira’s case). Where are the intense passionate conflicts as Milk neglects his partners and sacrifices them for him aspirations and ambitions?
The real, and most interesting, conflict emerges in Milk’s relationship with Dan White (Josh Brolin) This is where the emotions on the screen finally heat up and start to get real. From a character and conflict standpoint, the film catches fire with Milk’s election. Do we really need to know the step-by-step process by which White was elected? We can watch the documentary to understand that process.
The complex psychological dance between Milk and White is where the true emotional power of the film lies. White (Brolin) has an intense need to connect with Milk and earn his respect. He blames all his troubles on Milk. In turn, we get glimpses of Milk playing with White both personally and politically, taunting him and occasionally condescending to him. We finally get a tiny glimpse of Milk’s less than perfect humanity and his hubris. White is desperate and feels deeply threatened, humiliated and inadequate. How do the emotions build to the culmination of a tragic double murder? That is the heart of the most emotional story in the film and it gets too short a shrift.
Watching Brolin and Penn go at it in highly charged scenes fraught with powerful subtext and deep personal conflict is a joy to behold. THAT is the movie. The rest is purely prologue and should have been cut from the story.