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Published: Friday, 1/30/2009

Movie review: Milk *****

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sean Penn portrays gay rights activist Harvey Milk, left, and Victor Garber portrays San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in a scene from, "Milk." Sean Penn portrays gay rights activist Harvey Milk, left, and Victor Garber portrays San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in a scene from, "Milk."
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It's been two months since Milk trickled into national cinemas, first in art-house theaters and later in multiplexes. Today, finally, Milk arrives in Toledo.

It was worth the wait.

The true story of slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk, who was elected in 1977 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the nation's first openly gay politician, and one of the first champions of gay rights, Milk is the best film of last year.

Period.

It's the rare movie that exceeds its cultural and cinematic grasp and manages to be entertaining, enlightening, and - gasp! - relevant. Milk offers a triple convergence of mass appeal, artistic achievement, and social commentary wrapped neatly into the story of a politician and activist from our recent past. His message of civil liberties resonates 30 years after his death in light of recent political events in California - the state's successful passage of Proposition 8, which prevents the legal union of gay couples.

Milk doesn't want to be nor pretend to be an ordinary biopic. It can't be, really, and remain true to its larger-than-life subject, a New Yorker who moved to San Francisco and later waged a fierce political war for his cause.

In 1978 Harvey Milk vigorously campaigned for the successful voter rejection of California's Proposition 6, which would have made mandatory the firing of gay teachers and public school employees who supported gay rights. No doubt if Harvey Milk were alive today to see voters pass Prop 8, his reaction would be righteous anger to reverse the law. The film seizes this opportunity to poignantly remind us there is still much of Harvey Milk's work left to finish.

As Harvey Milk Sean Penn vanishes into the role; he's not playing Harvey Milk so much as he is Harvey Milk. Penn's performance is ferocious, gentle, and always riveting - you never feel like you're watching a star, but a focused and motivated actor let loose like a caged animal.

Just as impressive is Josh Brolin as San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, Harvey Milk's one-time political ally-turned-rival who murdered Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Brolin digs deep into the small but pivotal role and unearths a chilling portrait of a bitter, desperate man who blames the impotency of his political fortunes on Harvey Milk.

Cast aside by the mayor and the other supervisors, White resigned from the office, only to change his mind weeks later and ask for his job back. At the urging of Milk, Mayor Moscone opted not to reinstate White on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. White later armed himself and snuck into City Hall to plead his case in person with the mayor. When he failed to convince Mayor Moscone, White pulled the gun and shot him dead; a few minutes later, White walked into Harvey Milk's office and murdered him.

Brolin's layered performance brings humanity and empathy to a role that Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black has fleshed out into more than a simple caricature or plot device. Black also avoids the pitfalls of lionizing Milk as a saint. He was a shrewd politician and knew how to work people and the system to further his agenda. In the case of White, Milk used him to gain immediate political leverage shortly after both were elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, but ultimately discarded him when he felt White was no longer needed.

Milk justified such behavior as necessary political maneuvering in the advancement of gay rights, but the same crusade ultimately consumed his life,and forced him to sacrifice his lovers, his friends, and ultimately himself to further its cause.

Perhaps the unsung hero of Milk is director Gus Van Sant (Goodwill Hunting). Under Van Sant's masterful command, Milk is a joyous two-hour celebration of Harvey Milk's life, and solemn remembrance of his work.

*****

Contact Kirk Baird at

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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