[Screen It]

(2008) (Sean Penn, Josh Brolin) (R)

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Drama: An openly gay man repeatedly runs for office in 1970s era San Francisco in his quest to promote and protect gay rights issues.
It's the 1970s and Harvey Milk (SEAN PENN) is an unassuming gay man living in NYC who meets the younger Scott Smith (JAMES FRANCO). The two become a couple and end up moving to San Francisco's Castro neighborhood where they open a camera shop, only to discover that others aren't happy with their presence or the influx of gays into the city. As a result, and to both promote and protect gay rights, Harvey decides to run for local office.

Despite repeated defeats, he eventually succeeds, with the help from a committed staff including Cleve Jones (EMILE HIRSCH) and their political team's lone female worker, Anne Kronenberg (ALISON PILL), their lesbian campaign manager. Yet, the trials and tribulations of running for office eventually ends Harvey and Scott's relationship, with the newly elected official now living with the highly insecure Jack Lira (DIEGO LUNA).

While contending with issues at home, Harvey strives to be successful as a city supervisor, working alongside the likes of Dan White (JOSH BROLIN) who doesn't like his sexual orientation, but is generally civil toward him, at least at first. With the support of Mayor George Moscone (VICTOR GARBER), Harvey continues his work toward gay rights, a goal threatened by the likes of social activist Anita Bryant as well as State Senator John Briggs (DENIS O'HARE) who supports Proposition Six, a legal quest to repeal such rights.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Considering the amount of time, energy and especially money involved in doing so, and that public approval ratings of most such figures rarely remain high and often hit dramatic lows (especially when viewed as a collective whole), it's surprising that anyone gets into politics in the first place.

For some, of course, it's the family thing to do, following in the footsteps of an immediate or extended family member. For others, it's a power and/or ego thing, while many join the ranks in hopes of overhauling the entire system. Many, however, start on the grass-roots level, where some issue has grabbed their attention and they want to do something about it.

Some of those end up stopping once that's achieved (or quit when it can't be accomplished), but there are the few who continue on, realizing they can make a difference on a grander scale and/or realizing they've figured out the political world and are quite good operating within it.

Harvey Milk was one of those people. Born in 1930, he moved to San Francisco four decades later, opened a camera shop, and after four years of trying, finally won his first election as a city supervisor. While that doesn't sound terribly remarkable, his footnote in the political arena is that he was the first openly gay person elected to public office in California. His career was short-lived, however, as the man described by many as charismatic, brash and outspoken in his nonstop fight for gay rights was gunned down by an assassin just eleven months into his term.

His tale is now being told in the simply titled "Milk," a compelling and completely engaging look at the life and times of that activist. As directed by Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting") from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, this isn't your usual biopic as it doesn't show much of the man's early and formative years (one needs to see the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" for such back-story, if you will, on that period).

Instead, and following the introductory (and occasionally returned to) framing device of the politician recording an "in the event I'm killed" audio transcript of his life, Van Sant has the story begin when the protagonist (terrifically played by Sean Penn) meets his future lover (James Franco) in New York City and the two quickly move to the San Francisco's Castro neighborhood where and when the main plot thrust begins.

Spurred by anti-gay sentiments in a city suddenly burgeoning with people of that orientation, he begins organizing his efforts, first on a small scale and then moving on from there. The film then follows that movement as it grows and progresses from local concerns to national ones with the rise to power of singer turned anti-gay rights crusader Anita Bryant (who's shown in archival film footage rather than played by an actress).

While the direction, writing and supporting performances are all good (including from Josh Brolin as another pivotal city supervisor, and Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill, among others, as campaign workers), it's Penn's performance that gives the film its heart and soul.

Simply put, he becomes the late politician, both in terms of physicality (the actor's larger than life persona shrinks down into Milk's seemingly smaller frame and then explodes back out via a combination of character personality and pluck) and mindset (shifting from playful and even seemingly innocent lover to shrewd and calculating politician without missing a beat). It's an amazing transformation and overall performance, with Penn nailing the part and thus making the film accessible even to those who might be uncomfortable with and/or not approve of the character's orientation.

While it's just a slice of the real man's life rather than a full biopic, the charming, sometimes funny, occasionally tragic, and motivationally uplifting "Milk" is engaging from start to finish, and comes off as one of the best pics of the year. It rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 6, 2008 / Posted December 12, 2008

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