From the closet. To public office

Review of MILK
BY Jessica Zafra

The events described in Milk seem like records from a distant era, so it’s startling to realize that they happened just 30 years ago. Movies based on the lives of public figures tend to play like history lessons—you keep glancing at your watch to see how much more edification you must endure—but Gus Van Sant has crafted a vital and compelling piece of cinema. Based on the life of the assassinated gay rights activist turned San Francisco supervisor, Milk is the story of how one citizen becomes involved in the political life of a nation.

Harvey, a New York-born insurance company employee, moves to San Francisco with his boyfriend and opens a camera shop on the Castro. It’s the early Seventies: a gay man risks losing his job if he is exposed. He soon finds that San Francisco is not as tolerant as he’d hoped, and the Christian right is waging war on anyone who disagrees with them. Harvey quickly marshals the power of numbers, organizing the gay residents in a boycott of Coors beer and building an alliance with the Teamsters, of all people. It dawns on Harvey and his friends that if they want to be left alone and treated just like everyone else, they have to fight.

The political awakening of Harvey Milk is presented without rhetoric or phony sentimentality. Harvey learns politics the hard way, losing in three elections. He becomes a savvy politician—he adjusts his personal style, then repackages himself as a mediator when a riot threatens to break out—but you never forget that he’s a human being (with a messy personal life embodied at one point by Diego Luna). This is possible because the actor playing Milk is so good, you forget that he is the great Sean Penn. He is surrounded by a fine cast including James Franco as his boyfriend, Emile Hirsch as the part-time hustler who becomes his fiercest operative, and Josh Brolin, who hints at the inner terror and self-loathing of the assassin Dan White. (He also played Dubya in the Oliver Stone movie.) Milk is the stirring tale of an outsider who fought his way in so he could fling the closet doors open.

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