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December 5, 2008 |

By Ted Boynton | Film | December 5, 2008 |

Editor: This review contains plot references that might be considered spoilers; because the film is based on relatively well-known historical facts, these references are not marked in the text of the review.

In a beautiful and devastating portrayal of Harvey Milk in director Gus Van Sant’s late-life biography of the slain civil rights leader, Sean Penn has reduced the 2008 Best Actor race to a formality. Penn delivers a ridiculously perfect performance that renders the film’s few but significant flaws into shooting stars blotted out by the searing sun of Penn’s utter occupation of every frame in which he appears. While Penn’s phenomenal talent has long placed him on the short list for most gifted actor of his generation, his mammoth self-importance and near-pathological preening all too often swamp his projects. When placed under the firm control of a confident director, however, Penn can almost casually transcend the medium, and Van Sant’s sure hand in channeling Penn’s talent likely deserves a full share of the credit. Any missteps on Van Sant’s part, and there are a few, must be forgiven in light of his dialing down Penn’s emote-ometer to from “kill” to “stun.”

In that respect, Milk epitomizes the way in which a flawed and sometimes frustrating film can nevertheless realize its underlying concept perfectly. Much like Harvey Milk himself, the film occasionally squanders valuable time on annoying distractions, but every time Milk threatens to lose its way, Penn delivers a dazzling bit of dialogue or an astonishingly spot-on gesture to re-focus the narrative. In much the same way Harvey Milk galvanized the gay rights movement despite his own flaws as a man and as a leader, Penn harnesses Milk to his shoulders and carries the film to a great height despite some questionable narrative decisions.

The film picks up in 1970 at the time of Milk’s decision to live openly as a gay man and move from New York City to San Francisco, a decision that altered the destiny of millions of Americans. When we first see Milk walking through a New York subway, he chances to meet Scott Smith (James Franco), a young cruiser living a dangerous openly gay life. As Smith convinces Milk to come out of the closet, Milk and Smith form a deep bond that leads them to pack up and move west, with Milk rejecting his closeted life as a bland insurance executive to pursue the perceived freedom of the city of the Summer of Love.

When Milk and Smith arrive in San Francisco, however, they are confronted by the harsh reality of a post-Summer of Love San Francisco aggressively rejecting tolerance to return to its blue collar “family values” roots. Although the city’s Castro district has become a beacon of community and hope for gay men across the country, the city police remain lawlessly hostile, routinely rousting gay bars to harass and beat homosexuals. Gay-bashing is commonplace, with gay men fearing to walk the streets of their own neighborhoods. Neighboring merchants turn out to be unfriendly, and the government casually ignores the plight of this substantial portion of the populace. These challenges unexpectedly catalyze the activist streak and political acumen, to the surprise of Milk himself, who says early in the film that he regrets never having done anything important. His anger over the treatment he and his friends receive sets him on a course intended to secure not only the neighborhood, but the nation.

Initially forming his own neighborhood merchants’ association, Milk uses time-honored tactics such as boycotts and grass-roots organizing to create a reliable voting bloc and a community network to support the security of gays living in the Castro. Along the way, he discovers something critical about his nature: a raw talent for organizing resistance and pressure to counter the forces aligned against his community. Equally important, as an outsider, both socially and politically, he is not bound by the political compromises made by local gay leaders to achieve a modicum of recognition and security at the expense of true equality. Scoffing at leaders he views as sell-outs, he begins building a political machine to provide the gay community with access to the halls of power through the avatar of one Harvey Milk. Milk ultimately lands a coveted position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the legislative council that governs the city.

Surrounding Milk during his rise to power are a coterie of intellectuals and activists driven to the Castro by their own communities’ intolerance, and this group provides dramatic ballast to Penn’s personification of Harvey Milk: an ensemble of lovers, lieutenants, and supporters whose personal stakes in Milk’s rise lend an immediately personal aspect to the question of success or failure. This is not a faceless group of citizens, but a circle of trusted and loved friends whose ability to live in the open sunlight depends on the outcome of Milk’s political venture.

The historically accurate roster of activists includes several Bay Area icons who went on to help form the structure of liberal politics in Northern California for decades to come: energetic advisor Cleve Jones (an unrecognizably Jew-froed Emile Hirsch); grimly effective politico and fish-out-of-water dyke Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill); and Milk’s soulmate, Scott Smith (Franco). Franco is dynamic and credible as Smith, initially playing a whispery muse to Milk’s awakening political spirit but ultimately becoming the mustachioed essence of the virile gay Castro. Hirsch and Pill likewise capture their characters, young activists barely old enough to vote, much less determine the future of the gay rights movement, yet committed entirely to Milk’s vision of combative rapprochement.

Special mention must go to Josh Brolin as Milk’s political antagonist, Dan White. White was a Supervisor from the politically besieged district south of the Castro, a blue collar neighborhood of Irish-American families whose strong religious roots ran counter to the radical politics shaking San Francisco’s foundation in the 1960s and 70s. White successfully ran on a platform of resisting the “deviants” who had overrun the Castro, and once in office, White and Milk began a queasy dance of near-friendship and political opposition that led to Milk’s assassination. Brolin brilliantly captures the fumbling, blind hatred felt by a fading demographic that chose outrage to respond to a sexual identity it could not comprehend. Beyond 1970s politics, however, Brolin’s performance epitomizes every politician who has selfishly scapegoated an ethnic or social minority. As Milk’s support grew, and as he successfully began to oppose laws marginalizing homosexuals, White’s rhetoric became more and more clueless and desperate, and Brolin’s portrayal rings true for more than a few of the same ilk skulking through the halls of power today. At the same time, Van Sant doesn’t shrink from Milk’s metamorphosis into a political creature who shifted alliances at his own convenience and occasionally alienated potential allies.

Van Sant generally succeeds in weaving these elements together into a convincing whole, effectively setting the players in the unmistakable environment of the 1970s. Van Sant achieves the era’s look and atmosphere both in obvious aspects such as fashion and in more subtle and critical ways, particularly the relatively earnest politics of the time. San Francisco’s entrenched gay leaders may oppose Milk’s methods, and California’s religious conservatives may oppose his very right to exist, but Van Sant fairly presents them as sincere - motivated less by cynicism than by genuine fear, as selfish and irrational as that fear might be.

The most significant stumble by Van Sant occurs in some of the film’s narrative choices, particularly in the handling of Milk’s rise to power. Van Sant delivers effective early sequences depicting Milk’s energetic neighborhood rabble-rousing, a time when he stood on a wooden box (stenciled with the word “soap”) reading political speeches to random passersby. Van Sant quickly jumps ahead to a time when Milk has assembled a network of thousands of supporters, an army of motivated loyalists ready to take to the streets at a moment’s notice. These events actually happened, of course, but it feels almost as if there’s a missing reel somewhere, a lost tale of stirring rallies and bitter learning experiences that eventually turned Milk into a wily political fox. Beyond a quick succession of scenes showing Milk’s early defeats in political races, there is little to explain how an anonymous insurance man from New York turned into the most important political figure in San Francisco in less than a decade.

This fault might be less noticeable if the film didn’t spend a significant portion of its two-hour-plus running time on melodramatic trifles such as the telephone calls Milk received from young men across the country seeking courage to face the discrimination heaped upon them. Again, these events happened, but in the larger context of the film the scenes do little to illuminate Milk’s motivation or political character while disrupting the flow of the movie and distracting from the vibrant community events shaping the gay rights movement.

Van Sant also devotes too much time to too little effect over the mercurial relationship between Milk and Jack Lira (Diego Luna), a mentally unbalanced young man who became Milk’s lover during his political ascendance. The relationship was important because it demonstrated Milk’s tendency to allow melodramatic personal involvements to interfere with his political work; at the same time, the scenes between Penn and Luna feel aimless and a bit contrived, leaving more of a puzzled feeling than an enlightened one. As noted above, this thematic stumble actually lends a certain poetry to the film because of the frustrating parallel to Milk’s life - distractions and questionable personal decisions that occasionally threatened to derail the powerful train of his destiny. The depiction of Lira overall becomes a negative, however, as Luna portrays him as a simpering empty vessel, a jealous and demanding anchor around Milk’s neck with few attributes other than youth and beauty.

Penn’s outstanding work smoothes over these patches, however, along with the generally excellent cast around him, and Van Sant’s greater skills as a historical narrator far outweigh the thematic meandering. In his film Elephant, a fictional take on the Columbine school shootings, Van Sant displayed a remarkable ability to interpret historical events through dramatic narrative. Milk works to an even greater extent as a historical document through Van Sant’s brilliant interspersing of news footage. The film begins with clips of police parading men in front of cameras following their arrests for crimes relating to their sexuality, typically at bars used as cruising spots. As a San Franciscan, it’s all too easy for me to forget that a mere three decades ago it was common for police departments to persecute U.S. citizens for honoring their sexual identities. In many parts of our country this still goes on, and the sobering use of this footage places Milk’s courage in an important historical context.

Throughout Milk Van Sant scatters in news reports of the 1970s campaign by right wing religious groups seeking to repeal city ordinances protecting gays from discrimination in places as disparate as Dade County, Florida and Wichita, Kansas. In particular, Van Sant focuses on the irrational bigotry of the national anti-gay movement, a powerful faction that appropriately adopted brainless beauty pageant winner Anita Bryant as its figurehead. In the late 1970s, the focus of their power and prejudice turned to California through the Briggs Initiative, a voter referendum seeking to institutionalize workplace discrimination against public school teachers who happened to be gay. Van Sant skillfully weaves news footage into the narrative, juxtaposing Milk’s bitter local battles with the national sweep of authentic Walter Cronkite news reports, gay pride protests, and laughably clueless sound bites from Bryant.

With the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California banning gay marriage, along with similar state referendums across the country, it is clear that Milk’s work is not complete. Van Sant’s vision and Penn’s searing portrayal demonstrate, however, that in any civil rights struggle, one individual can turn the tide - that it is the curious nature of human rights disputes that through neighborhood activism and local organizing, the disenfranchised can often realize gains that could not be accomplished by the mighty.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

Milk / Ted Boynton

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