Democracy at the street level makes for great theater. Whether about shipyard workers in Gdansk, the newly enfranchised in Selma, Ala., or the newly liberated in Baghdad, "people power" is electrifying to behold. Milk, the long, long-awaited bio-film about gay politician and "community organizer" Harvey Milk, is filled with such political thrills. It's about a man who pioneered the cause, who was elected to office as an openly gay man and who was martyred, just as he always predicted.
This history, brought vividly to life by filmmaker Gus Van Sant, a Louisville native, and a great cast headed by Sean Penn, debuts after a community organizer has just won the presidency and as the country wrestles again with gay rights.
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Milk doesn't waste a moment in telling Harvey's story. From the opening credits, a montage of vintage TV and newsreel footage of police raids on gay bars in the 1960s, it gives us context, personalities, the stakes in the struggle and one who saw the big picture.
Milk was a forty something gay Republican when he moved to San Francisco in the early '70s. He opened a camera shop on Castro Street and did the math as he watched passersby. If he could organize gay people, this distressed neighborhood would come back to life, become a "gay mecca." Van Sant, working from Dustin Lance Black's script, shows us that transformation in quick strokes — business owners who journey from hate to profit, unions earning gay help to win contracts — with police harassment and murderous gay-bashing as a backdrop.
That prompts Milk to run for office.
"My fellow degenerates," he jokes as he announces his first race for city supervisor. "I want to recruit you."
Milk takes us back to the 1970s culture wars, when orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant fought gay civil rights ordinances in Florida and elsewhere, railing, "Gay people can't reproduce. They have to recruit."
Penn, in a soft but passionate performance, takes us into Milk's big heart, his penchant for younger men who "need my help," and his ruthless political savvy. Van Sant surrounds Penn with terrific support, starting with a nicely matured James Franco, playing Milk's lover, Scott. Emile Hirsch, who starred in Penn's film Into the Wild, dazzles as Cleve Jones, a young hustler whom Harvey enlists, radicalizes and trains in the cause.
Josh Brolin gives nuance and sympathy to Dan White, the ex-cop supervisor who found himself increasingly at odds with Milk, losing his own dreams of the city and conservatives' shrinking place within it.
Milk is framed within Penn's narration, on tape, of a will "in the event of my assassination," and never strays far from the facts of Milk's life and death, hewing closely to biographies, including Randy Shilts' The Mayor of Castro Street. Van Sant weaves in news footage of the day, turning a moving, inspiring biography into a history lesson, a civics lesson and a personal struggle for civil rights.
Perhaps it is simply an accident of timing that puts Milk in theaters at this moment. But fate or simple fortunate timing, Milk arrives as one of the best films of 2008.