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Milk

Movie title: Milk (2008)
Grade: A- (4 stars)
Rated: R
Summation: The life of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and his contribution to gay rights activism.
Spoilers ahead: No

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Often, it’s history that provides us with the best drama over any fiction-based themes. The life of Harvey Milk was a great choice for a drama motion picture. He lived a remarkable life and died an unforgettable death. If there’s one thing Harvey Milk gave his life trying to show it’s that these are not political issues, but life issues. They affect a lot of people. Like Tom Hanks’ Philadelphia, this film says a lot on a life-altering issue.

Harvey Milk was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors until he was assassinated by defeated former supervisor Dan White in 1978. His dynamic character and un-drainable drive for recruiting gay activists to speak out against the intolerance of his generation changed the attitude of the United States on gays and employment. Milk had the honor of being the first openly gay man to hold public office in California. “I’m here to recruit you,” was his catchphrase.

Milk – outspoken and known for having relationship troubles out of obsession for his cause – would march right into the heart of enemy territory and do battle. That defeat was a certainty didn’t matter. He never gave up, and he got others not to give up. Nine million gay Americans have him to thank for that.

Hate the movie all you want. Disagree with its message out of religious convictions till you’re blue in the face, but there can’t be much disagreement that Sean Penn can act. Resplendently, he did it again as Harvey Milk, followed by fine performances from Josh Brolin “Dan White” and James Franco “Scott Smith.” The entire cast was well picked and looked like the real people they play. Just wait for the credits.

As is the case with any true-to-life film, the focus is solely on the history, in this case on the cause of gay activism. There is a certain narrowness to the flick because of that, with its unrelenting fixation on the cause and the lives of the characters. If you are not interested or at least sympathetic to the gay lifestyle, the movie might not have the same impact. It’s very gay (yes, that kind of gay!) So if you have a problem with that, the movie will prove unbearable for you. To so many others, however, it will surpass expectations, even with the smile-provoking flamboyance characterizing the “movers” of the movement.

Unlike many special interest group-focused movies, Milk doesn’t belabor persecution. It’s there, but it’s not focused on with the expected level of counter-bashing. It doesn’t villainize the police as homegrown bigoted buffoons with badges. It speaks of it and shows it, and then it moves on. It provides not quite the same courtesy to the Christian right and the opposition faced from the church, as it shouldn’t have, that force being the fuel for the fire of anti-gay efforts.

The emphasis in Milk is instead placed on Milk’s personal life and the lives of those activists who worked closely with him, and their being ceaselessly confronted with defeat—sometimes because of weak efforts on the part of those on their own team not as willing to “come out” and fight. Being whipped by an unsympathetic status quo time and again, they kept on, pushing until it gave. Getting death threats and having carloads of hate-mongers pull up next to them and being chased down the street didn’t stop them. They kept on.

Milk’s assassination scene was award-worthy by itself. In shock, holding up his hand to stave off the arrival of the bullet, not knowing what to say, the scene was captivating. The same is true of the candlelight march at the end—real footage from the event. Eight wins and twenty-one award nominations testify to the film's profundity.

(JH)

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Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Sean Penn “Harvey Milk,” Emile Hirsch “Cleve Jones,” Josh Brolin “Dan White,” Diego Luna “Jack Lira,” James Franco “Scott Smith,” Alison Pill “Anne Kronenberg,” Victor Garber “Mayor George Moscone,” Denis O'Hare “State Senator John Briggs”
Genre: Drama

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