Sunday, January 18, 2009

Movie Review: Milk

(The following contains spoilers if you are not familiar with Milk's story.)

is the powerful, moving and real-life story of Harvey Milk's journey to become the first openly gay elected official in politics. Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, and no surprise here, he immerses himself completely into the role. Penn becomes Milk in physical appearance, voice, mannerisms, and most importantly, in emotion: in the love Milk had for the opera, the pain he felt from losing lovers, the fear from death threats and in the passion Milk had for the gay rights cause.

The film follows Milk's life beginning at age 40 and ending with his brutal assassination eight years later. Harvey Milk tells his story as he sits alone in his kitchen, talking to a tape recorder. He wants his struggles and accomplishments recorded, in the event of his assassination.

Like the film, Milk's life really began at age 40. Before 40, Milk explains to his much younger partner, Scott Smith (James Franco), that he has done nothing of importance with his life.

Once Milk experiences discrimination, sees the negligence and brutality of the police, and tries to run a business in the Castro district of San Francisco, Milk becomes more politically aware. Milk starts his own gay business association, and soon he is a leader in the local gay community. Milk is a friendly, charismatic character with a flare for the dramatic. He can command an audience and make the young, hopelessly lost males fall in love with him. He loves to rescue people, and he loves being in a place of power.

Milk decides gays need one of their own in office, and that he is the person for the job. Milk runs three times for Board of Supervisors before he is finally elected, after a change in district lines. Along the way, Milk transforms from a pot smoking, long-haired hippie to a clean-cut, suit-wearing politician. Milk's boyfriend Scott supports "the movement," but takes issue with "the machine" of politics Milk is so wrapped up in. Milk campaigns and works day and night. The long hours take a toll on Scott, and later the new, and very needy boyfriend, Jack Lira (Diego Luna). The love interests of Milk's life play a key role in his story. He loses too many of them to suicide.

Milk couldn't have gotten elected without the help of a strong campaign team, led by the young, smartalec Cleve Jones, played by Emile Hersh. Hersh, Luna and Franco are all fantastic in their supporting roles.

Once in office, Milk works tirelessly to push through gay rights legislation and to oppose the efforts of the "Save our Children" campaign, which sought to remove all gay teachers and "gay supporters" from schools. Milk wins these battles, but makes an enemy in Board of Supervisors member Dan White played by Josh Brolin. White represents a Catholic, conservative neighborhood, not far from the Castro. White seeks Milk's support on the Board, and when Milk votes against him, White decides Milk is the enemy.

White's character and relationship with Milk are complex. White doesn't understand the homosexual lifestyle, but he doesn't really seem to be against gay rights, either. He would almost be Milk's friend if Milk hadn't voted against him early on. White seems to only vote against Milk for revenge, not on principle. Milk is friendly to White and even seems to have sympathy for the guy. White takes his job very seriously, but he can't make ends meat on it, and he never has the votes of his fellow board members.

White eventually resigns, but then after a suspicious meeting with police, has a change of heart. White is wound up tight and when Mayor Moscone will not give him the job back, he snaps. He sneaks into City Hall through a basement window to bypass the metal detectors. First he kills the mayor, and then sends five bullets into Milk.

The scene of Milk's assassination is heart-wrenching. It doesn't matter that you know it's coming. It hits you hard in the gut because you've spent the last hour in a half getting to know and care about this real-life character.

After Milk and Mayor Moscone are killed, a group of about 30,000 march in the streets. It's an awesome sight to see the streets of San Francisco filled with 30,000 candles in support of a man who stood for hope and civil rights. Words flash on the screen that explain how White claimed he was mentally incapacitated from eating too much junk food, "the Twinkie defense." He is sentenced to five to seven years for brutally killing two elected officials. He is out in five. It was an outrage then and it's an outrage now.

Milk left me both incredibly sad over Milk's death and also incredibly bewildered and enraged over White's fate. Although this film takes place 30 years ago, it is just as relevant today. The film shows how far the gay rights movement has come, but recent elections all over the United States remind us how far it still has to go.

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