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Review: Milk

Van Sant's gay of reckoning
By PETER KEOUGH  |  December 5, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Milk

Milk | Directed by Gus Van Sant | Written by Dustin Lance Black | with Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Vince Garber, and Jeff Koons | Focus Features | 128 minutes

Interview: Cleve Jones. By Peter Keough.

Few films have caught the zeitgeist as serendipitously as Gus Van Sant's trenchant, teary Milk, a bio-pic of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk. The first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, Milk (Sean Penn) was murdered on November 27, 1978, along with the city's mayor, George Moscone (Victor Garber), by Dan White (Josh Brolin) after Moscone refused to let White rescind his resignation from the city's board of supervisors. The film resonates not only because the release coincides with the anniversary of Milk's death but because of an unfortunate repetition of history.

In 1978 Californians voted on Proposition 6, which would have banned gays from government jobs. Earlier this month, they voted on Proposition 8, which forbids same-sex marriages. Milk's campaigning helped defeat the former. So why did the latter win? Perhaps this movie might prod some into reconsidering why they voted for Prop 8 and inspire others into renewed efforts to campaign against it.

For that reason alone Milk demands to be seen. More important, in its first 40 minutes or so, it provides a textbook description of how to create a grassroots movement. Most likely, however, the reason the film will seduce audiences and woo Oscar voters is that it's a juicy and manipulative melodrama and a powerful tearjerker.

Van Sant starts off conventionally enough, with Milk taping an autobiographical statement to be listened to in the event of his death; that's followed by archival news footage of the shootings. Then we flash back to his pre-activist days as a closeted New York office drone who, on his 40th birthday, in the arms of new-found love Scott Smith (James Franco), decides to move to San Francisco to do something in his life "to be proud of."

Newly bearded and long-haired, Milk and Smith open a camera shop in the fledgling gay enclave of Castro Street. But it's not quite the promised land: the established businesses and the police force are virulently homophobic. Milk organizes the gay community, and boycotts and unlikely alliances with the Teamsters and others produce the powerful political movement that puts him in office and defeats Proposition 6.

Van Sant re-creates the locations, the clothes, the ambiance, and the fervor of those days with rousing exactitude. Whatever his intent with his notorious shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1998), the experience seems to have served him well in reproducing the archival images from Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Penn uncannily resembles Milk, and at his best he evokes Milk's combination of sweetness and toughness, his aura of raunchy saintliness.

But politics doesn't sell tickets, so Van Sant must juice up Milk with a sampling of his subject's chaotic personal life. Milk's relationship with Smith sours what with all the politicking — though Harvey still finds time for a folie à deux with Jack Lira (Diego Lugo, like a psychotic Topo Gigio). Fair enough, but Van Sant fails to integrate these gossipy digressions, and Penn's performance in them unravel — at times he seems to be channeling not so much Milk as Sam I Am.

Such ploys might make even the hardhearted weep at the tragic ending. I don't know that it was necessary to have Milk save the life of a gay teen in a wheelchair, or to repeat for those who might have forgotten it his prophetic musing "I won't make it to 50." Even so, I can't see anyone being unmoved by the army of candlelight marchers at the end. And maybe that will be enough to get people marching again.

  Topics: Reviews , Emile Hirsch , Gus Van Sant , Harvey Milk ,  More more >
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