Review of Milk

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Sean Penn gives a towering performance as the title character in this political bio-drama based on the life of gay rights activist Harvey Milk, who, in 1977, was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The following year, Milk and the city's mayor were assassinated by Dan White (Josh Brolin) who had just resigned from the Board. James Franco, Emile Hirsch & Alison Pill also star.
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Movie Review: "Milk" --

Rating: R (language, brief violence, some sexual content)
Length: 128 minutes
Release Date: January 30, 2009
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Genre: Biography/History/Drama
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

"Milk" is jarring in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that director Gus Van Sant tells the audience early on that protagonist Harvey Milk will be assassinated. This is not really a spoiler, since Milk was a real person whose death is a matter of public record. That would be akin to complaining that knowing that the boat in "Titanic" is going to sink is a spoiler. History tells us the ship sank, just like history tells us Milk is dead. The great part about both films is that there is an alluring tale to tell before the inevitable ending.

Sean Penn gave an Oscar-winning performance as Milk, a 40-year-old gay man living in New York. He was in a mindless job as a corporate researcher and stayed in the closet for fear of retribution, despite the fact that he was in love with Scott Smith (James Franco). Finally frustrated with the double life he was leading, he decided to do something about it.

Scott and Milk packed up and moved to San Francisco in 1972 as openly gay men. Like many gay men, they settled in the Castro Street area, which is a hotbed of gay-owned businesses today. However, back in 1972, it was just being settled by the gay community and many heterosexual business owners in the area were not happy about it.

Van Sant uses stock footage from newsreels to help the audience see just how divided the area was at the time. This is in stark contrast to how San Francisco, and particularly Castro Street, is viewed today. Today, San Francisco is seen as being very gay-friendly, a bastion of acceptance. Many viewers may not realize that it took a long, protracted battle to get there. Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for the film, act as historians.

Milk and Scott settle in the neighborhood and choose to open a camera store which is almost immediately embraced by the gay community. When he sees how the police act towards him and his fellow homosexuals, Milk decides to try and do something about it. He becomes an activist, voicing the concerns of the burgeoning gay community. He begins giving speeches and proves himself to be a master orator, a talent he did not realize he had. As he becomes more of an activist, his talent for publicity and getting his message across really shines. Penn also shines in these moments, earning his Oscar by showing how the once-closeted Milk transformed himself from a humble researcher to his given moniker of the "Mayor of Castro Street."

Though Milk organized many ethnic, racial and union groups together to support gay rights, his efforts didn't have enough of an impact. He had been pressured to run for public office several times but declined. Out of frustration over the lack of progress, he finally decides to run, though he loses several times.

Milk doesn't give up very easily and finally gets elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977. In winning, he becomes the first openly-gay man to be elected to public office in California. For most, his victory is merely a footnote in history, but here, Van Sant treats it as something much bigger. It is a watershed moment that is fraught with conflict, and his cameras pick up every thrilling and unnerving moment of it.

After winning office, Milk fatefully meets Dan White (Josh Brolin), a good Catholic man who forms an uneasy alliance with Milk despite the fact that he has openly said that homosexuality is a sin. Milk embraces White, even attending his daughter's baptism. It turns out White may have been in denial about his sexuality and begins to lash out at his new friend. Eventually, that anger turns to pathos, leading to Milk's untimely death.

Although Van Sant reveals to audience members who don't know that Milk dies by the end of the movie, it doesn't dampen the movie in the slightest. Instead, it makes the film and all of the historical events more poignant and meaningful as they unfold on the screen. The magic of the film is seeing the character's transformation and how it helped give hope to the embattled gay community. Even today, Milk stands as a gay icon. It isn't easy trying to pay proper homage to an icon, but Van Sant and Black pull it off brilliantly.