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Thursday, January 8, 2009

milk


Maybe you don't know a damn thing about gay activist Harvey Milk. San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be voted into office in America, was shot dead in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, in City Hall. Dan White, a troubled politico who had served with Harvey on the city's board of supervisors, pumped five bullets into Harvey. Smoldering intensity wasn't Harvey's thing. Penn uses makeup to lengthen his nose and look more like Harvey. He adopts a New York accent to get Harvey's inflections. There's one word for Penn's performance: phenomenal.

To those who say its focus limits its audience, I say Harvey's focus was human rights and therefore limitless. Robert Epstein's Oscar-winning 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, memorably traced Harvey's life journey. Van Sant is hunting bigger game. He wants to show Harvey in the daring act of inventing himself. Milk begins with Harvey's 1972 arrival in San Francisco with his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco, warmly funny and touching). All the actors excel, notably Hirsch, Franco and Diego Luna as Jack Lira, the Mexican lover whom Harvey neglects with tragic consequences. Sporting the calendar-ready look of a good Catholic husband and father, Dan is both repulsed by and attracted to Harvey and his gay agenda. Harvey's band of brothers tease Dan mercilessly. At a party, a drunk Dan approaches Harvey in a piercing display of yearning and isolation. Van Sant means for his film to strike a personal chord, whether Harvey is talking a closeted teen out of suicide or talking himself into keeping up the fight when his own love life is crumbling. It brings Harvey to life for a new generation instead of setting him in stone.

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