By Steve Warren

Van Sant and Penn deliver an inspirational, Oscar-worthy biopic that beams with gay Pride

MAYOR OF CASTRO: Penn milks it.

I can’t give a fair appraisal of "Milk" — especially its cinematography — because I watched the whole movie through teary eyes.

Gus Van Sant has taken a cue from his subject — the first openly gay man elected to major public office in the U.S. — by appealing to various constituencies without compromising his principles. "Milk" is the gayest, proudest movie mainstream ever made. Yet it can be seen and appreciated by anyone, even if they don’t agree with it.

"Milk" is long but well paced, having scads of information to impart. The framework is a tape recording Harvey Milk made to be played "only in the event of my death by assassination." It includes the line, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." The tape becomes a memoir of Milk’s last eight years.

In 1970, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) is a New York Jewish insurance man catching a late subway on the eve of his 40th birthday. He gets an unexpected present when he meets Scott Smith (James Franco), a hot young hippie type from Jackson, Miss. Needing a change of scene to fully leave the closet, Milk suggests they "run away together."

In 1972, they’re living in San Francisco. Harvey opens the Castro Camera store. Pointedly unwelcomed by the local merchants association, he talks of starting a separate group for gay businesses.

Among the activists who hang out in the camera store is Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), a part-time hustler inspired by witnessing a gay protest in Barcelona that turned into a riot.

Dubbed "The Mayor of Castro Street," Harvey makes his first run for the Board of Supervisors in 1973, coming in 10th in a field of 32 competing for six seats. He loses again in 1975, and in a bid for the State Assembly in ’76.

In 1977, the rules change so San Franciscans elect supervisors by district, rather than citywide. Milk is a perfect fit for District Five, consisting largely of hippies (the Haight) and gays (the Castro). But when he decides to run, Scott leaves him: "I can’t do another one." They remain friends to the end, always hinting at a possible reunion.

Meanwhile, Harvey finds a new boyfriend, the immature and needy Jack Lira (Diego Luna). Jack never bonds with Milk’s associates: his new campaign manager, lesbian Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), who helps Milk get an endorsement from the San Francisco Chronicle, even though The Advocate endorses his (also gay) opponent, the more conservative Rick Stokes.

It’s also the year Anita Bryant galvanizes the gay community nationwide with her successful campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Fla.

Harvey is elected to the Board of Supervisors. So is Dan White (Josh Brolin), a former firefighter who represents the city’s Irish Catholic old guard. The two men get along on some level, but White lacks Milk’s political savvy and begins to resent him.

The last big fight is against the 1978 "Briggs Initiative," which would bar homosexuals and their allies from teaching in public schools. It comes down to the wire, and this would have been a good place to cut a couple minutes of footage intended to heighten the suspense.

With that battle won by the gays, Dan White resigns from the board but tries to un-resign days later. When Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) refuses to reinstate him, he shoots Moscone and Milk.

With Dustin Lance Black’s savvy screenplay, Van Sant crams a lot of history into two hours. With the exception of Dan White, the other characters exist only in relation to Milk. So there’s only one performance that matters. Penn’s performance encompasses a broad range of moods and emotions — from "40 years old and I haven’t done a single thing I’m proud of" to the proudest gay man in America. So far, he’s the man to beat for Best Actor.

Van Sant seamlessly blends new footage with a lot of original films of the period, some of which were probably processed through Castro Camera. "Milk" is comparable to "Brokeback Mountain" and "Philadelphia," both in terms of award potential and knowing what the American public is ready to accept. I can’t imagine a better film being made on the subject.

B+ Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill and  Diego Luna
Opens Wednesday, Nov. 26.
2 hrs. 8 min.           R


On Tuesday, two-time Oscar winner "Boys Don’t Cry" star Hilary Swank, was scheduled to visit Dallas to talk about her illustrious career.

But because she can’t leave her current film location, she’s had to cancel. So Brooke Sheilds, pictured, is filling in. Brooke’s a nice gal, but come on — Swank has two Oscars. And she scored her first one while shooting in Dallas playing a transgendered martyr.

Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St. Nov. 25, 8 p.m. $140-$280. 214-880-0075.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 21, 2008.

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