Friday, November 28, 2008

Gimme some more Milk

His life changed history. His courage changed lives. In 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man to be voted into public office in America. His victory was not just a victory for gay rights; he forged coalitions across the political spectrum. From senior citizens to union workers, Harvey Milk changed the very nature of what it means to be a fighter for human rights and became, before his untimely death in 1978, a hero for all Americans. Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk under the direction of Gus Van Sant in Milk, filmed on location in San Francisco.

Academy Award winner Sean Penn takes the title role in Gus Van Sant's biopic tracing the last eight years in the life of Harvey Milk, the ill-fated politician and gay activist whose life changed history, and whose courage still inspires people. When Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he made history for being the first openly gay man in American history to be voted into public office. But the rights of homosexuals weren't Milk's primary concern, as tellingly evidenced by the wide array of political coalitions he formed over the course of his tragically brief career. He fought for everyone from union workers to senior citizens, a true hero of human rights who possessed nothing but compassion for his fellow man. The story begins in New York City, where a 40-year-old Milk ponders what steps he can take to make his life more meaningful. Eventually, Milk makes the decision to relocate to the West Coast, where he and his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco), found a small business in the heart of a working-class neighborhood. Empowered by his love for the Castro neighborhood and the success of his business, Castro Camera, Milk somewhat unexpectedly begins to emerge as an outspoken agent for change. With a growing support system that includes both Scott and a like-minded young activist named Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), the charismatic Milk decides to take a fateful leap into politics, eventually developing a reputation as a leader who isn't afraid to follow up his words with actions. In short order, he is elected supervisor for the newly zoned District 5, though this seeming triumph is in fact the catalyst for a tragedy that starts to unfold as Milk does his best to forge a political partnership with Dan White (Josh Brolin), another newly elected supervisor. Over time it becomes apparent that Milk and White's political agendas are directly at odds, a revelation that puts their personal destinies on a catastrophic collision course. Two remarkable transformations are at the heart of Milk, Gus Van Sant's affecting portrait of Harvey Milk, the slain 1970s San Francisco politician and civil rights icon. First and foremost is Sean Penn's title performance, which woos gold in the coming awards season. Here he's hope personified, easily adopting his subject's ready smile that is so much in evidence in The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning 1984 documentary on the first openly gay politician in California's history. The other impressive transformation is director Van Sant, who has spent most of the past decade avoiding linear narratives. Working from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (TV's Big Love), Van Sant embraces conventional biopic format as he tracks Milk's progress from a closeted Wall Street money man who, on the eve of his 40Th birthday, decides to out himself and move west to enjoy San Francisco's supposedly more liberal climes. Milk makes the leap with Scott Smith (James Franco, making the most of a small role), a man 20 years his junior whom he brazenly propositions in the New York subway. The two set up a camera shop in San Fran's Castro neighbourhood, where a wave of pink immigration is shocking the city and the nation. As a gay man himself, Van Sant might have been expected to try to elevate his subject beyond the near-sainthood status accorded him from his 1978 assassination at the hands of a deranged fellow politician. Instead he takes the more honest and dramatically satisfying route. He astutely uses documentary footage to remind viewers of how unliberated the 1970s really were. But he leaves Penn's magnetic empathy to speak for itself. The actor portrays Milk as a flawed and self-interested man for whom personal epiphany came slowly, but who experienced a history-altering "road to Damascus" moment when it did. He is at first happy to play the hippie businessman, dubbing himself "Mayor of Castro Street" as he quickly builds alliances by organizing popular street festivals and promoting the lifestyle he had until recently practiced in secret. Politics beckon when he becomes frustrated with conservative agendas, which contrary to perceptions are very much a force (and remain so today, as the recent Proposition 8 vote to reverse gay marriage rights demonstrated). Milk's repeated attempts to attain public office are stymied as voters react with fear to the prospect of a gay takeover of city hall. Ever the optimist, beginning every public speech with, "I'm Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you," the charismatic chameleon successfully mobilizes public support against a proposition to fire gay teachers, a civil rights landmark. He forges ties with everyone from Teamsters to conservative politicians, the latter including fellow rookie supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin, brilliantly understated), a Vietnam vet and former fireman who will later shoot Harvey and Mayor George Moscone over a political dispute. That killing, which the movie portends with an elegiac score and scenes of Milk predicting his assassination in tape-recorded statements, is presented with little varnishing of the known facts. Milk's one weakness is that it attends to political triumphs and defeats more faithfully than it does personal ones. Lovers and friends played by Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna and others are well presented, but make little impact next to Penn's imposing take on martyred idealism. The film understandably and movingly centers itself on Penn's portrayal of a hedonist-turned-activist who discovered that in order to change his world, he had to find his voice. This is definitely one to see, so don't miss it. A hefty 5 on my "Go See" scale.
WTF? Moment: Midway through the movie there is a scene where San Fran citizens storm the streets after Proposition 6 gets passed, Milk and Jones (Penn and Hirsch respectively) rally together to calm them down. As Milk takes Jones to get his bullhorn, there's a brief moment where they stop and talk. As they are talking in a fairly close up shot of them, the boom mike can be seen hovering overhead for most of the scene.

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