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HomeNewsArchives'Milk' Engrossing Story of Nation's First Gay Politician'

'Milk' Engrossing Story of Nation's First Gay Politician'

Jan. 28, 2009 – "'Milk' is a fascinating multi-layered history lesson," says New York Times movie critic A. O. Stone. Sean Penn, who plays Harvey milk, the nation's first openly gay man voted into public office, is an equally fascinating multi-layered actor, critics agree.
Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977; he was shot and killed less than a year later, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), by a fellow-supervisor, family values conservative Dan White (Josh Brolin).
Milk's life changed history, and his courage changed lives, not just in the gay community, but across a broader spectrum. Both the film and Penn are 2009 Oscar contenders.
As the movie opens, he's quit his button-down job in New York and moves to San Francisco in 1970 with his younger partner, Scott Smith (James Franco). Milk starts a camera shop in the city's Castro District, where he becomes locally famous as a gay activist. He trades favors with the Teamsters union, arranging a boycott of Coors beer in gay bars where the brewery won't sign a contract with the union; in return, the Teamsters allows gays to drive beer delivery trucks.
Meantime Milk pursues politics; on his third try, he is finally elected as to the Board of Supervisors. .
Critic Stone says Milk had a "profound affect on national politics, and his rich afterlife in American culture has affirmed his status as pioneer and martyr." Milk's brief career inspired a documentary by Rob Epstien in 1984 and opera by Stewart Wallace in 1995. In 2000, he was voted one of Time magazine's most important people of the century.
Denby calls the current movie, directed by Gus Van Sant a "vibrantly entertaining film, a rowdy anthem of triumph brought to a halt by Milk's personal tragedies and the unfathomable moral chaos of Dan White."
Denby says "Van Sant and screen writer Dustin Lance Black are careful not to caricature the assassin. In another brilliant performance, Brolin, a slab of hair lying low across his forehead, gives White a brick-headed, baffled manner, a tormented neediness."
There's a lighter aspect to Milk's story, which recalls his liaisons in New York – it, in fact, opens with a pick-up on the subway, where Milk meets the younger and attractive Smith. Remember, this is the seventies, just before the advent of HIV/AIDS, and the sex was freer.
According to critic Scott, "The mood of the moment, which ends up with the two men eating birthday cake in bed, is casual and sexy, and its flirtatious playfulness is somewhat disarming, given our expectation of a serious and important movie grounded in historical events.'Milk' is certainly such a film," Scott says, "but it manages to evade many of the traps and compromises of the period biopic with a grace and tenacity worthy of its title."
Milk has several lovers. Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsh) "a smart little street operator," says Denby, " "and Jack Lira (Diego Luna) an emotionally unstable Latino, after Smith grows tired of Milk's endless campaigning an walks out."
Denby says what Milk really wanted was what straights take for granted; the ability to live without shame. "By casting a famously macho actor as Milk," Denby says, "Van Sant has made the central humanist desire for self-acceptance and pride newly powerful.
"Giving himself utterly to the role," Denby says, "Penn takes an actor's craft and dedication to soulful heights, making a demand for dignity that becomes universal."
The film starts Thursday at Market Square East. It runs 127 minutes, and is rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.

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