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  Publicity Stills of
(Courtesy of Shaw)

Genre: Drama/Biography
Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, James France, Diego Luna, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare, Stephen Spinella, Eric Stoltz
RunTime: 2 hrs 8 mins
Released By: Shaw
Rating: R21
Official Website: http://www.milkthemovie.com/

Opening Day: 8 January 2009


The story of California's first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by San Francisco Supervisor Dan White.

After moving to San Francisco, the middle-aged New Yorker, Harvey Milk, became a Gay Rights activist and city politician. On his third attempt, he was elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977, making him the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the USA. The following year, both he and the city's mayor, George Moscone, were shot to death by former city supervisor, Dan White, who blamed his former colleagues for denying White's attempt to rescind his resignation from the board.

Movie Review:

As a celebrity in the public eye, Sean Penn has always come off as a little stuffy and rigid. He's a full-throated liberal, yes, but he also has exhibited in interviews and at awards functions that his sense of humor—or lack thereof—leaves something to be desired. This, of course, has nothing to do with the actor side of Penn, whose quarter-century-plus career has been laden with performances both over-the-top (2003's "Mystic River," 2006's "All the King's Men") and brilliant (1995's "Dead Man Walking," 2001's "I Am Sam"). Playing the real-life Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected into major U.S. political office, Penn is nothing less than transformative in the aptly-titled biopic "Milk." This is one of those watermark turns that an actor waits all their life to play, and he disappears into the role with every fiber of his being.

Milk's life and death were the subject of an Oscar-winning 1984 documentary by Rob Epstein, and Hollywood has been flirting with making a feature of his life for years. Oliver Stone and Bryan Singer have both been attached to a film of Randy Shilts' biography Mayor Of Castro Street, with actors from Robin Williams to Daniel Day-Lewis to Steve Carell flirting with playing Milk. Van Sant himself was once attached to that project, but instead opted for this Dustin Lance Black screenplay which covers Milk's life from the ages of 40 to his death at 48.

The movie begins at the story’s end, with Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), presciently, documenting his journey with a tape recorder in the event of his untimely death. He begins with his days in New York City in 1970, picking up strangers in the subway. It’s his 40th birthday, and he guilts a young cutie named Scott (James Franco) into spending the night with him. The two decide to go somewhere that they don’t have to hide who they are, so they head for San Francisco’s Castro district, where the two set up a camera shop and form affiliations with the other gay businessmen. This leads to the support of the local teamster’s union, which inspires Harvey to run for city supervisor. After several unsuccessful campaigns (which ultimately cost him his relationship with Scott), he finally wins a slot thanks to a reorganization of the voting precincts. It’s now 1977, and the religious right is mounting a full-scale war on the civil rights of gays. Milk turns to fellow loner supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) for help, and gets more than he bargained for.

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.

Perhaps the smartest decision Mr. Van Sant makes is simply to let his actors act, unencumbered by stylistic intrusions. He has assembled a remarkable ensemble (also including Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill), with everyone from the headliners to the smallest bit player completely tuned in to the material. The star in particular stands out. Perhaps the premier actor of his generation, Mr. Penn has always achieved a certain studious excellence in his work, but he’s never done anything quite like this. He gives such a charismatic performance that one completely believes in Harvey’s potential to galvanize a wide swath of the population. He’s fun loving and sympathetic, but also astute, serious and able to work himself into a perfectly pitched frenzy. There may not be a more taxing acting challenge than being asked to turn a historical figure into a tangible, fully-formed individual – to evoke the legend and the man behind him. Mr. Penn does so exquisitely. In the process he turns Mr. Van Sant’s tribute to Milk and his unfinished work into a powerful human drama.

Tech credits are unshowy and perfectly realized, from the cinematography by Van Sant regular Harris Savides, to the costume and production designs, to the soundtrack and music score by Danny Elfman (2006's "Charlotte's Web"). The film looks, sounds and feels like the 1970s, rather than a fictional representation of the time period. "Milk" is all the more timely in that it is being released in November 2008, thirty years beyond its setting and with California's Proposition 8 ban against gay marriage near the forefront of many people's consciences. Though a lot has changed for the better since 1978, it is sobering to realize that the fight for tolerance and gay rights in America is far from over. With every two steps forward, it seems like the country takes one step back. It is due in part to Harvey Milk's work and legacy that that first step was taken at all.

Movie Rating:

(Milk serves as a provocative measure of past and present possibilities)

Review by Lokman B S


. Talk To Me (2007)

. American Gangster (2007)

. Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

. The Queen (2007)

. Lords of Dogtown (2005)

. Hotel Rwanda (2004)

. The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)

. All The King's Men DVD (2006)


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