Thursday, December 4, 2008

Film review: "Milk": Likely Oscar cream rising

By Hap Erstein

“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.”

That is the frequent opening line recited by a gangly gay man with a twinkle in his eye, a perennial political candidate out to defuse hostilities toward homosexuals as well as show his gay brethren that they too can gain some governmental power.

The movie is called simply Milk, named for the activist, community organizer, San Francisco board of supervisor member (after three unsuccessful runs for office), and eventually assassinated martyr for the gay rights movement.

Although it has been long in the works, with numerous stars, directors and screenwriters attached and then stymied by the material, you would never know that from the assured direction of Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting), an ambitious yet adroit script by relative newcomer Dustin Lance Black and, most particularly, a nimble, charismatic central performance from Sean Penn in the title role.

From the opening pre-Stonewall newsreel footage of police harassing gay men in bars, Milk declares that it has larger ambitions than mere biography. Through the character’s rise during the 1970s, the movie charts the history of gay activism. And through Milk’s efforts to defeat a California ballot initiative aimed at rooting out gay teachers, parallels to the recent gay marriage proposition in that state are eerily evident.

Milk has its political agenda, but it never gets in the way of the movie’s entertainment value. Early on, the film mentions Milk’s gunshot death at the hand of emotionally conflicted fellow supervisor Dan White, so a cloud of dread hangs over the narrative. Yet Milk forges ahead with an unflagging optimism, leavened by intercut shots of him dictating his valedictory, to be heard only in the event he is murdered.

Still, much of Milk has a breezy tone, from his initial subway station pick-up of soon-to-be lover and campaign manager Scott Smith (a blithe James Franco), Milk’s succession of failed runs for public office, and his deal-making for his gay constituents once he lands on the board of supervisors.

Josh Brolin (recently seen as George Bush in W.) is very effective in his brief screen time as White, as are a parade of supporting players including Emile Hirsch as a savvy street kid who joins Milk’s entourage, Denis O’Hare as a homophobic state senator and Victor Garber as affable, but tough San Francisco mayor George Moscone.

Director Van Sant, who is coming off a string of failed experimental films like Gerry, Elephant and Last Days, not only draws fine work from his cast, but manages the film’s complex logistics with seeming ease.

Still, the movie belongs to Penn, in a role that is the diametric opposite of the many brooding, intense characters he has specialized in lately. His Harvey Milk is a gentle guy, determined but not driven, with a sense of humor despite the efforts of others to marginalize him. He is a magnetic soul, an unlikely politician, yet we can see how voters gravitate to him.

The movie gives us both the public and the personal Milk, though it succeeds better at the former. It begins with the relationship of Harvey and Scott, but loses interest as Scott drifts away, replaced for prominence in Milk’s life by politics. Milk next takes up with an emotionally needy Mexican man, Jack Lira (Diego Luna), but the film never manages to get inside the character’s head.

Nevertheless, that is a minor quibble in a movie that gets so much right. Milk, like the man, is wily and likeable, politically astute and likely to win over audiences. Expect the film and Penn to be up for Oscars early next year.

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