December 4, 2008

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Milk (R)
Sean Penn becomes Harvey Milk, the crusader for gay rights in 1970s San Francisco, in the soaring biopic Milk, the first political movie of the Obama age.

Who knows what kind of quagmire of not-change and lack-of-hope we’ll find ourselves in by this time next year? But for now, the country (or, at least, enough of it) is willing to put “optimism” and “politics” in the same sentence and even “better” and “future.” Milk, with its many scenes of Penn giving rousing speeches and its hopes for a better tomorrow, taps into that Nov. 5 national mood. I kind of wonder how this movie, made long before the voting started, would have been different if the election had gone differently.

Actually, Milk gets you thinking about two elections — the presidential election (“change” is as big in Harvey Milk’s campaign as it was this year) and the California vote on Proposition 8, which strikes down gay marriage and which voters approved by a small margin in the last election. How would that race have been different with a guy like Harvey Milk leading the charge?

In the beginning, Harvey (Penn) doesn’t seem like such a force to be reckoned with. When he meets Scott Smith (James Franco), the man who quickly becomes a long-time boyfriend (at least according to the film), Harvey is on the eve of his 40th birthday and he is still rather circumspect about his sexuality. He lives in New York City, works a corporate job and is in the closet. With Scott, he decides to move to San Francisco, open up a camera shop in the Castro (a neighborhood that at the time was a mostly Catholic, blue-collar enclave) and open up his life, kissing his boyfriend in public and talking with other gay men about political activism. As the movie tells it, he starts running for local office — state assembly, supervisor — in the early 1970s but it takes an eventual redistricting for him to get a district whose support he can win.

Milk, as shown here, is a class A politician. He knows how to walk a district, shake hands and get in people’s faces, get his name in their minds. While gay rights is the issue close to his heart, he slowly builds his coalition (seniors, teachers, minorities) by also finding meat-and-potato-type local issues, like safety, schools and senior citizens’ issues. He forms a powerful alliance with local unions by getting the gay community (and the area’s growing number of gay bars) to join a boycott of Coors. And, as supervisor, he turns some of his attention to fighting dog poop — a quality-of-life issue that won him headlines and praise.

The big fight of the movie is over another proposition, Prop. 6, which would have allowed California schools to fire not only gay teachers and school officials but all teachers and school officials who voiced support for their gay colleagues. This fight in the movie — with shocking real footage from Anita Bryant — seems both archaic and frighteningly not so unfamiliar. Milk urges the gay community (full of men and women who still hadn’t come out to friends, family, employers — to anyone but each other in some cases) to come out and let people know who they are. His thinking is that everybody, every Prop. 6 voter, would realize that they know somebody who is gay and couldn’t then vote for a law that hurt a friend or a coworker or a loved one. It was a brave and smart strategy and you can’t help but wonder if the Prop. 8 vote this year would have gone differently with a similar kind of grass roots approach.

The politics of this movie, the way Milk learned how to manipulate a crowd or work his allies, is so much giddy poli-sci-junkie fun to watch. At one point, Milk leans hard on Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) not to reinstate supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), a slightly crazed-seeming opponent of Milk’s. You sound like Boss Tweed, Moscone, a political ally of Milk’s, tells him. Milk seems to delight in the comparison — a gay man with power, he says gleefully, look out. Penn is in his element in this role. In some movies, he seems to let his Penn-ness carry him through. Here, he really gets inside Milk and gives us the public face of a man who seems suddenly spurred to activism while still showing us some of his private sides. We see Milk’s fear (his high profile also wins him death threats) and his relationships with his friends and boyfriends. We get a complete person in a way that some biopics simply don’t give (the recent The Duchess is a good example of a person’s life story that felt rather slight; perhaps Milk benefited from having first-person witnesses to Harvey Milk’s life around to help fill in the personality).

Equally engrossing is Brolin as Milk’s eventual assassin, Dan White. (The movie uses archival footage to introduce the fact of the assassination right up front, so it’s not really a spoiler.) Brolin, even more so than Penn, is able to completely sink into a role — President Bush in W., the almost non-verbal Llewelyn Moss in No Country For Old Men, the corrupt detective in American Gangster. Here, he gives us a Dan White who never seems quite right. He’s over-eager, twitchy, unreasonable and quick to hold a grudge. Milk has his suspicions about what has White wound so tight; the movie leaves it vague.

This is a stunning movie about one man and a stunning movie about the birth of the gay rights movement. It’s a welcome early chapter for those of us who know more about recent gay rights history than the frighteningly closeted yet not-so-distant past. And it’s a rare movie about politics that is brutal, honest and hopeful — all without becoming so Frank Capra-esque that it seems unrealistic. This is the first genuine Oscar-worthy film of this Oscar-hungry fall season and the best political film in a long while. A

Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. Directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Dustin Lance Black, Milk is two hours and eight minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Focus Features.