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Milk   B+

Focus Features

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco.

Review by Rob Vaux

Few films this year feel as timely as Milk. With the aftershocks of Proposition 8 reverberating across California and both sides gearing up for a long and bitter struggle, its heartfelt portrayal of gay rights' most visible martyr could have been pulled from tomorrow's headlines. In many respects, it's an extremely routine biopic -- a surprise coming from a director as nontraditional as Gus Van Sant -- but its insight forms eerie parallels with the ongoing movement for which San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk gave his life.

It also sports one of the strongest ensemble performances in a long time. Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, James Franco, Victor Garber, and Alison Pill all give superb portrayals of the figures surrounding Milk, who rose to prominence in the late 1970s as the nation's first openly gay elected official. As good as they are, however, they all take a back seat to the two most gripping turns: Sean Penn in the title role and Josh Brolin as his eventual assassin, Dan White. For Penn, it marks a professional high point in a career littered with them. He portrays Milk with an intriguing blend of the normal and the extraordinary. Stereotypical homosexual behavior is readily apparent -- the character here is effeminate, flamboyant, and cheerful to the point of camp -- but it hides an instinctively political mind, as he uses other people's presumptions about him to first disarm and then overcome them. Milk combines those qualities with his deep-set desire to live a normal life: spending time with various lovers (including Franco's Scott Smith and Luna's Jack Lira), running a camera shop in the Castro district, and helping those around him feel like they belong.

Thirty years ago, of course, that really wasn't possible. Though the Stonewall riots in 1969 had marked a turning point in gay rights, a backlash was in full effect, and Milk and his compatriots were feeling the heat. His knack for speaking leads him to run for office, and through a number of bitter campaigns, he learns how the game is played. He makes deals with unions who use the queer community to successfully negotiate a strike against Coors (boycotting beer in the city's gay bars makes for a tight pinch). From there, he eventually lands a seat on the City Council, where he works towards broader laws such as a ban on dog poop as a means of generating influence. His knack for the job marks him as a rising star... much to the consternation of White, a fellow Supervisor who doesn't quite know what to make of him. White lacks Milk's effectiveness, he struggles to find causes that define him, and he may be in the closet himself. Brolin infuses the man with a combination of pathos, frustration, and repression that allows us to feel for him without condoning his eventual act of destruction.

Van Sant posits their just-below-the-surface conflict in fairly traditional ways, blending archival footage and reenactments to sketch out how and why Milk came to this position. The framing device is a confessional audio tape he makes in case he is assassinated, which structures the story both in personal terms and in terms of the profound risks he was taking. It eventually catalyzes in the battle to stop Proposition 6: a monstrous piece of legislation allowing employers to fire gay workers solely because of their sexual orientation. Its chief proponent -- Florida orange juice maven (and born-again Christian) Anita Bryant -- makes a fine off-screen boogeyman. (She's represented only in actual archival footage which the characters see on television.) Their fight to stop her encompasses Milk's political ascent, while White continues to founder in his wake. The ramifications ultimately had fatal consequences for both men.

They also draw a chilling similarity to the current environment in California. Like Prop 8's supporters, Bryant and her allies hid their bigotry behind the supposed protection of children. Like them, they laid claim to "God's word" in lieu of defensible arguments. Van Sant couldn't have possibly known how well his effort would dovetail into that fight, but he understands how deep the issue goes... and how basic it is. Despite the ways his opponents demonized him, Milk fought for very simple things: respect, decency, and the right to live his life in peace. Thirty years later, the advances he helped pioneer led to a sense of complacency among the gay community, which Prop 8 has shaken to the core. Though conventional in many ways, Milk could not possibly represent a more potent battle cry. Indeed, it is impossible to separate the film from the issue; they are utterly indistinguishable. Galvanized by Penn's performance, that makes for as fitting a validation as any biopic could hope for.

Review published 11.30.2008.

Also read: Q&A: Josh Brolin.

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