Josh Brolin (left) as Dan White and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, rival city supervisors in San Francisco, 1977, in Gus Van Sant's "Milk", which opened today in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.  (Photo: Danny Nicoletta on behalf of Focus Features) 


Love, Fear, Power and Loathing in Harvey Milk's San Francisco
By Omar P.L. Moore/November 26, 2008

"Milk" is a first-class portrait of pride, hope and inspiration.  Dustin Lance Black, who scripted the film, has done what befalls most films on real-life political figures: weave an effective, heartfelt personal story of Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay political figure, with the politics of the times that gave rise to him.  These two stories converge seamlessly, holding our interest, as does the remarkable performance of Sean Penn as Mr. Milk, a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, elected in 1977.  Mr. Penn spares the man he inhabits any dramatic flourishes, portraying him as naturally and as honestly as possible.  It is an award-nomination waiting to happen.  The acting from the remaining cast members is also riveting, particularly Josh Brolin's brooding powder-keg portrayal of fellow Board member Dan White, a man wrapped so uncomfortably tight that it looks as if his hair and skull will explode if you looked at him for too long. 

Special mention also to James Franco, who plays Mr. Milk's lover Scott Smith.  There is a constant air to Mr. Franco's presence here that is reassuring, a calm counterpoint to his animated and busied partner.  This is a tribute to his acting as well as the way Mr. Van Sant develops the intimate relationship between the two men.  The partnership between them is rendered sincerely and in a way that doesn't throw cliches in -- although Mr. Van Sant seems to do exactly that with Jack Lira (Diego Luna) another of Mr. Milk's lovers.  Whether Mr. Lira in actuality conducted himself in the fashion that the director depicts via Mr. Luna's rendering remains to be seen.  The other minor flaw in the film is the retrospective treatment device -- see this for yourself, I'm not going to give it away -- of the main character.  On several occasions the sight of Mr. Penn in character recording himself stops the flow of the film, which does quite alright without the repetitive intonations of Mr. Penn, whose lead character also does voice-over.  The insertion of the visuals are redundant.

That said, "Milk" is a phenomenal film, charting the culture of San Francisco in the 1970's and its evolution into a mecca for gays and gay political power.  The journey from The Castro to City Hall evolves profoundly in Mr. Van Sant's film.  Mr. Black's script cleverly crafts the small story (Harvey Milk's camera business facing discrimination in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco and the quest for community empowerment) and builds it to a crescendo with the larger story of Mr. Milk's pursuit of political power as a mainstream politician.  Mr. Black's screenplay is the crucial element that engineers the film as it weaves in archival news footage of American gay uprising from the start, with the Stonewall Riots in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1969 to the bitter fight by the homophobic celebrity and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant as she aggressively campaigned to successfully get anti-gay legislation passed in no fewer than a dozen cities in 1977, (although she and Orange County, California politician John Briggs failed in their bid to get Proposition 6, aka the Briggs Initiative, passed in California that year.)  There is a re-enactment of an actual debate in Orange County, when Harvey Milk famously went into the county to a packed high school gymnasium to debate the conservative Mr. Briggs over Proposition 6, which if passed would have prevented gay people from teaching in California schools.

When constructing "Milk" in January of this year, a movie shot entirely in San Francisco, Mr. Black and Mr. Van Sant had no way of knowing that in November of this same year that Proposition 8, which removes the right of same-sex couples to marry from California's constitution, would pass by virtue of a 52% to 48% vote -- but it did, and it makes "Milk" all the more urgent a call to remember its activist but more importantly carry forth his message, particularly with one of the film's -- and Mr. Milk's most memorable line: "no matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words from the Declaration of Independence . . .  all men are created equal."

As spoken by Mr. Penn's martyred character in this important film, "the movement is the candidate" -- a statement which remains as true today as it did 30-plus-years ago.

With Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill and Victor Garber.

"Milk" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language, some sexual content, and violence.  The film's duration is two hours and 12 minutes.  "Milk" opened today in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and in additional U.S. cities as well as Canadian cities on December 5 and 12.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


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