(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Gus Van Sant directs a powerful docudrama of the life and times of Harvey Milk, from coming to San Francisco to being elected city supervisor to being murdered along with the mayor of San Francisco. The style is realistic and not overly polished. This is a highly affecting film, and Sean Penn gives the most moving performance of the year of a very ordinary man whom history moved to greatness. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to a major office in this country. At age forty he moved from New York City to the Castro section of San Francisco, lobbied for gay rights, and ran for public office. In fact, several times he ran for office eventually being elected City Supervisor. He had conflicts with a mentally unbalanced City Supervisor named Dan White. Eventually Dan White settled his multiple conflicts by bringing a gun to City Hall and murdering Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. Gus Van Sant directs the story of Milk in a style is very much like documentary footage. Films like the current VALKYRIE and DEFIANCE use a more dramatic style. Van Sant does not understate his scenes but he does not overstate them either. One feels that this is an authentic view into these lives.

The structure of the film is confused but not confusing. Mostly is seems to be Milk's reminiscences spoken into a tape recorder and dramatized in flashback. However, the narrative includes Milk's death. His reminiscences flash between his political and personal lives. His political life repeated pits him against self-righteous opponents who identify their will with that of God. Opponents include State Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare), Anita Bryant (played by herself in newsreel footage), and Dan White (Josh Brolin). Dustin Lance Black's script even does a reasonable job of representing Dan White's position and even some truth to his feelings of betrayal by Milk. This film even has some sympathy for its most negative character. On the other hand, Milk's personal life is more of a mess with multiple troubled relationships. Milk has a soft spot in his heart for the weak and the wounded. At times this brings him to the edge of scandal, but he seems to come out untarnished.

I have never considered Sean Penn a particularly appealing actor. He can be powerful, but until MILK he never played a character I had much feeling for. His Harvey Milk is powerful but also vulnerable and funny. He can be a political wheeler-dealer, and he can sabotage himself for principle. Penn gives a letter-perfect performance of a complex figure. He pulled me into the character and made me feel for him. When he died at the end there was a feeling of loss. In one scene Milk is rushing around doing something political when he gets a phone call from a young gay man in Minnesota. Milk tries to brush him off. As soon as the young man mentions he is considering suicide Milk turns on a dime. Saving this man in trouble is his first priority and there is no second. Milk as Penn plays him is tremendously likable and sympathetic in ways that transcend his politics. This is charm I have never seen in Penn and this may well be the role Penn will be remembered for.

There are several familiar faces peppered throughout including James Franco of the Spider-Man films and FLYBOYS showing a more vulnerable side. Victor Garber, who played the builder of Titanic in the film of the same name, exudes confidence as San Francisco mayor Moscone. The film's Dan White, Josh Brolin, brings some unexpected sympathy to his role. He may be familiar from MIMIC, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and perhaps AMERICAN GANGSTER.

MILK is a film about a man of courage and compassion. I rate MILK a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. And it does not hurt a bit to have liberal use of Puccini's spectacular music from his opera Tosca.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper