Thursday, December 4, 2008

"You gotta give 'em hope"

Last night I saw Milk, the fantastic new film from Gus Van Sant. Sean Penn stars-- in a buzzy, Oscar-worthy performance-- as Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay man to win public office. Penn shares the screen with a strong ensemble that includes James Franco as Milk's long-suffering lover/campaign manager Scott and Josh Brolin as conflicted politician Dan White (whose resentment of the flamboyant and successful Milk boils over into rage and murder). The standout-- besides Penn-- is Emile Hirsch as colorful, fiercely energetic Cleve Jones, who's brought out of his youthful aimlessness and inspired to become a powerful activist. (Jones went on to create the AIDS Quilt; I was lucky enough to meet the man at a recent New York Times Talk and was in awe of all the history he's lived through-- and influenced.) Hirsch expertly embodies this empowered, plucky queer, to such a degree that I really think he's a young actor to watch. (He already garnered strong notices for his starring role in Penn's film Into the Wild.) The movie starts like a Shakespearean tragedy, immediately establishing that its hero will eventually be assassinated, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). Penn is narrating his life story onto a tape labeled "just in case," well aware that his audacious activism has made him a target. We flash back to 1970, when Milk flirts with a cute young man (Franco) in the subway and the two spend the night together. They eventually move to San Francisco, where Milk opens up a camera shop on Castro Street that quickly becomes a community center. Galvanized by the city's homophobia (police, Milk notes, are none too pleased with the neighborhood's new found status as a gay mecca) and by successful efforts to mobilize gays to boycott hostile businesses, Milk decides to run for office. After a string of failed attempts, he finally wins when district rezoning lets the Castro elect him to the Board of Supervisors by a landslide. The campaigning takes its toll on Milk's relationship, however, and Scott leaves when he tires of playing second fiddle to politics. (He remains a friend and ally, however; the emotional chemistry between the actors is richly drawn, and their intimacy is palpable.) Milk soon finds new love with Jack (Diego Luna), a troubled Spaniard; but he has bigger concerns, like growing animosity with would-be ally, Supervisor White, and the need to defeat Proposition 6, which would block gays from teaching in public schools. (The parallel with this year's Proposition 8 is undeniable, especially when Milk declares anti-6 fliers that don't even mention gays as bloodless and ineffectual; the same criticism was lodged at anti-8 commercials.) Milk is up to these challenges, though, expertly using his charm and innate skill at playing the political game to achieve his ends. Van Sant portrays the events with clarity and real human drama, working from Dustin Lance Black's shrewd and insightful screenplay. At times, the movie can feel a little After-School-Special-ish in its gung-ho approach to activism, but that's a minor quibble for a film so rich and beautiful. Van Sant imbues the film with detail and compassion, and it's a gift to both film buffs and gay youth, who are sure to find inspiration and hope in this tale of a gay man who was determined to destroy the closet and win civil rights by any means necessary. I, for one, feel like getting involved again; Prop 8's passage proved that the battle is far from over. Harvey would be proud.

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