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Movie Review: Milk

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Sean Penn’s inhabitation of the real life Harvey Milk is arguably 2008’s most mesmerizing acting performance and one of the two or three best of the accomplished and overrated grandstander’s career. To his credit, the method actor goes a long way toward perpetuating the “best-of-his-generation” moniker into perpetuity.

Penn — with the chops, but not the charm or complexion of a conventional movie star — creates a multidimensional man, making a long-dead human being appear alive. Milk is passionate and flawed, and further ahead of his time than most cultural spectators realized 30 years ago when he suffered a sensationally tragic death at the smoking-gun fingertips of former policeman and firefighter, and fellow city councilman, Dan White (Josh Brolin, increasingly reliable).

Lactose intolerant? Most people looking for secondary and tertiary chances at life, aiming to reinvent themselves, follow redemption’s tempting call to a place without
long-term memory, without the time to hold grudges, like, say, The Big Apple. Not Harvey Milk. In the early ‘70s he and his partner Scott Smith (James Franco) sought a brand-new-start-of-it far away from East coast dinginess and density. Emerging as an influential left coast haven for hippies and homosexuals, the restless 40-ish New Yorker gravitated toward the left wing’s political epicenter — San Francisco.

Shortly after moving to the Bay Area, Harvey Milk opened up a neighborhood camera store in the flamboyant Castro Street district. But he had deeper urges within aching for satisfaction. He wanted to promote a sense of commonwealth among likeminded people — to advocate for and protect the rights of the disenfranchised. For Milk, this meant advancing gay rights. He believed that the city offered the furtive seeds of growth the homosexual community needed to build a coalition of responsible and influential gay and lesbian citizens, people deserving equal footing alongside other accepted classes of people. Following the lead of disgruntled black leaders who were attempting to overcome parallel challenges within their own community, Milk and his tight knit network of directionless compatriots — some past and future lovers, like Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch, a frisky eye-catching performance among a stellar cast) — decided the best way for him to affect change was to become a San Francisco city-county councilman.

Throughout the mid-‘70s the big-dreamed Milk ran for San Francisco City Supervisor multiple times, building a larger voting block with each passing election loss. Finally winning in 1978, he became the first openly gay publicly elected official in U.S. history, immodestly comparing himself to baseball’s Jackie Robinson.

Penn shows Milk to be an inspirational visionary and leader, a man of conviction who believed that all men really are created equal. The actor’s performance captures Milk’s charisma, and viewers’ imaginations. His passion for the causes that he justifiably believes in are bigger than himself. For a sizable viewer portion, the most impressive aspect of Penn’s vulnerable Milk portrayal may be the magnificent and unanticipated manner in which it engenders a moral suspension-of-belief in unconscious judgment of the doomed leader’s so-called sexual orientation and controversial political platform. For all his peccadilloes and certain-to-be-perceived wrong-headedness in some viewers’ minds, Milk’s revealed as a vibrant, thoughtful, and articulate man — having fairly and squarely earned a representative voice in the democratic process beside his most impassioned and vehement rivals.

Milk’s personal (theatrical) odyssey is centered around his actual in-case-I-die time capsule tape recording, having Penn sitting at a modest kitchen table speaking into a microphone as he explains his motivations and goals that have led up to his foreseen — yet still unrealized — demise. This eve-of-death set piece serves as the narrative’s recurring jumping off point for Milk’s evolution from pleasure-seeking small businessman to community organizer and iconic gay rights national symbol.

Director Gus Van Sant does a textbook job of recreating the ‘70s, opening the tale with
real-life footage of then San Francisco councilwoman Diane Feinstein, now a California Senator, stoically announcing the shooting deaths of Milk, and mayor George Mosconi, at the tightly wound hands of recently resigned councilman Dan White. Van Sant conveys the decade’s Me-Generation tone with a transparent seamlessness that complements, without leaving a distracting aftertaste, that films like American Gangster (2007) over bake by mistakenly accentuating with a plethora of stereotypical decade-specific artifacts. It’s easily the director’s best work.

Peppering events with grainy and off-center JFK-style (1991) footage allows Van Sant to frame story with news clips of real former Miss Oklahoma, and pugnacious anti-gay activist, Anita Bryant, stumping for Proposition 6 in Florida — a ban on homosexuals in the workplace and anyone who supported them — that leaves the singing beauty queen coming off as an unreasonable Old Testament mischief-maker Milk sympathetically prepares to reckon with.

Milk’s central political crusade oughtn’t be lost on today’s audiences, as they should prepare to marvel at the eerie parallels between the Proposition 6’s prejudicial intolerances when book-ended with those of California’s recently passed Proposition 8 — banning gay marriage in California in the 2008 election. Whether planned by Van Sant or not, it is likely too mysterious a question to ever know the answer to. Either way, never did the adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same" seem more apropos. It’s this aspect of Milk that gives it a gravitas not typically sought by, or bestowed upon, prototypical Hollywood biopics. Timing, as it is said, is everything.

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