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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Milk

Milk is brash, opinionated, in your face politically, yet utterly charming — not unlike its subject, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. The film necessarily has a tragic ending, because Milk’s political career, after a late-blooming beginning and several false starts, was a brief series of meteoric successes that lasted less than a year before he was assassinated. Yet the movie is not a downer – it’s an exhilarating entertainment. After several deliberately abstract and “difficult” movies like Elephant and Gerry and Last Days, fascinating and brilliant but hardly seen outside film festivals, Gus Van Sant here makes a triumphant return to something like the Hollywood mainstream.

When some of us heard that Sean Penn had been cast as Harvey Milk, we were a bit puzzled and skeptical. This often sullen and sometimes scenery-chewing star, with his macho persona, seemed like a less than perfect fit. But we were dead wrong. Not only is Penn utterly brilliant — after seeing him, it’s hard to imagine another actor in the part. The rush he obviously gets from taking on this terrific role is contagious, and he casts quite a charismatic spell.

Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (best known before now as a writer and producer of HBO’s Big Love series, drawing on his own Mormon background) manage to turn Milk into an epic about the modern gay rights movement, and somehow, thankfully, they avoid being grandiose about it. At the beginning there is a montage of men being busted at gay bars in the 1950s and 1960s. The ending recreates in an extraordinarily moving way the huge San Francisco candlelight procession that followed Milk’s murder in 1978. Throughout, real historical footage (and apparently some new footage treated to match the real stuff) is intercut with the vividly written and acted dramatizations that are front and center. The effect is to make the issues and events startlingly clear and potent: this is history happening before our eyes.

Harvey Milk was a relatively conservative New York businessman living an active but mostly closeted gay life from the late 1950s through most of the 1960s. But his politics began to become more radical about the time he turned 40 and moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s with his lover Scott Smith (superlatively well played by James Franco). It’s hard to imagine now, but San Francisco was not always paradise for gays – the largely Irish Catholic police force had repeatedly harassed and busted the patrons of gay bars for decades. Milk opened a camera store in a neighborhood then known as Eureka Valley, and he was galvanized by the resentment the locals expressed toward the increasing numbers of gays moving in to what came to be called The Castro. Soon he was running for political office.

The bulk of the movie follows Harvey’s series of losing, but ever closer, runs for office, culminating in his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. This may not sound like an electrifying plot, but the storytelling and the performances are both funny and exciting. As Harvey and his allies meet their nemeses, the movie becomes more political and less personal (and it’s possible that some viewers will experience this as a letdown in sheer movie terms).

These nemeses are, on the national level, Anita Bryant (shown only in actual 1970s footage, still startling and hilarious and infuriating), who leads a religious campaign against gay rights laws; on the state level, California State Senator John Briggs (well played by Denis O’Hare), who pushes a California ballot initiative banning gay teachers; and, locally and most crucially, Harvey Milk’s fellow freshman City Supervisor, Dan White, a product of the conservative Eureka Valley community that resents the ever more numerous and vocal Castro gay groups.

Josh Brolin is Dan White, and his performance gives the second half of the movie a scary, smoldering intensity. Although he becomes the villain of the piece, Brolin’s White is never a caricature, and never completely unsympathetic. He seems like a lost soul – but one poised on the precipice of frightening violence. The conflict between Milk and White plays out with the force and inevitability of tragedy, although the post-modernists Van Sant and Black inevitably undercut this with flashes of wit and dark humor.

And I don't want to neglect three other contributors to the film's success. Emile Hirsch, ever deft and protean and surprising, is excellent as longtime Milk associate Cleve Jones (who later conceived the AIDS quilt project). The superlative cinematography is by Harris Savides, who shot last year's best film, Zodiac (another 1970s time-trip) and several previous Van Sant movies, including the visually astonishing Elephant. And Danny Elfman contributes music that underlines the epic, elegiac tone of the piece without overdoing it.

Recreating real lives and events is risky and difficult, although filmmakers insist on trying. So when they succeed as splendidly as they do here, it’s especially gratifying. Milk refuses to pull punches or feel embarrassed by either its politics or by sexuality, which is frank for a studio movie. This is, of course, the only sane way to approach the subject, and if some straight audiences stay away as a result, it’s their loss. We can hope that won’t happen, and that people will see it in large numbers. It’s one of the year’s very best movies.

Harvey Milk held office for less than a year. Yet his importance to the gay rights movement is enormous. This circumstance has often made him seem more like a symbol than a real person, and while there may have been some attempts here in the script and performances to correct that, the net effect is more likely to be to reinforce his status as a mythical hero, especially to younger members of the audience. The resemblance between Harvey Milk’s battle against the teacher ban (known as Proposition 6) and this year’s Proposition 8 gay marriage ban wasn’t planned by the filmmakers — yet it’s unavoidable. And few audience members will fail to note the painful fact that, unlike this year’s anti-Prop 8 campaign, Harvey won.

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