by Pa Rock
If you are planning on entering an Oscar Pool this year, here is a freebie: Sean Penn will win Best Actor for the title role in Milk - and Josh Brolin will be a strong contender for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Harvey Milk's assassin, Dan White.
I took in this amazing film earlier today expecting to see little more than two hours of something like a History Channel presentation. I knew the story, in fact, the actual murders of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone of San Francisco occurred after two of my children were born. Director Gus Van Sant weaved thirty-year-old news footage and exemplary contemporary acting into his dramatic retelling of a chaotic episode in America's past. And the timing of his film's release could not have been more poignant: it dealt with the defeat of a California hate law that targeted gays and lesbians - and its release came on the heels of the passage of anti-gay hate legislation in California just a few weeks ago. Comparisons between the two measures cannot be avoided, nor should they be.
The primary hero of this true tale is Harvey Milk, a San Francisco city supervisor and the first openly gay male elected to a major public office in the United States. But beyond that individual, the activist gay and lesbian residents of San Francisco and their relatives andc friends give heart to this important historical era. Milk's fellow supervisor, Dan White, is the front-line villain, but it is Anita Bryant, a bitter crone and shill for the orange juice industry, and a nation of Christian Fundamentalists, who are the overarching villains.
Knowing the story of the events that led to that awful day in San Francisco didn't spoil the magic of this movie. Van Sant and his stellar cast brought the events of the early days of the gay rights movement to life. Sean Penn was Harvey Milk, body and soul. He skillfully moved from a closeted insurance administrator in New York City to a successful businessman and political dynamo in San Francisco's Castro district. His flaw, an addiction to power, was only starting to present itself as problematic when he was gunned down by ex-policeman White.
Josh Brolin played Dan White as a deeply closeted male who was struggling to support his family on a meager supervisor's salary. There was a point in the tale where White reached out to Milk with some potential political deal-making, but the gay supervisor reneged at the last moment, earning him the fateful enmity of White. Brolin bestowed more humanity on Dan White than he probably deserved, and definitely more than the press did three decades earlier.
James Franco also gave a standout performance as Scott, Milk's partner throughout much of the period covered by the film. He is shown as the anchor in Milk's life, and the foil for his occasional bouts with grandiosity. It is Scott who clears their apartment of all of the political operatives and campaign workers so that Harvey is able to eat supper in peace. As Harvey becomes more consumed with politics, Scott quiety and peacefully withdraws from his life.
Milk chronicles a turbulent time in American society, a time that should be behind us, but unfortunately still rises occasionally like a festering boil in need of lancing. Dan White is dead (presumably), and Anita Bryant has been silenced and is probably drooling in a home somewhere, being spoon-fed gruel three times a day by a gay orderly too young to know just what an awful person she was in her prime. But the Christian fundamentalists still rage on, consumed by the fear that somewhere people are laughing, loving, and enjoying life on their own terms. Until these hate-riddled zealots figure out what Jesus was really about, civilization is doomed to be mired down in their intolerance and bigotry.
"There are few things in life more evil than a 'good' Christian." ~ Pa Rock
Milk is serious history wearing the cloak of exceptional drama - as history so often does. People who see this movie will not leave the theatre unaffected, of that you can be certain.