Van Sant’s timely ‘Milk’ among year’s best

Posted Dec. 07, 2008, at 7:24 p.m.

MILK, directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Dustin Lance Black, 128 minutes, rated R.

The new Gus Van Sant movie, “Milk,” follows Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” in that it opened in wide release across the country last Friday, though not in the Bangor market. Instead, we received “Punisher: War Zone” because, you know, that’s the film those in control of movie distribution in our area figure idiots like us would rather see.

Here’s my yearly note to them: There is intelligent life up here. Look into it.

From Dustin Lance Black’s script, “Milk” is one of the year’s best movies. Given that it comes in the wake of California’s Proposition 8, which overturned the rights for gay men and women to legally marry, it’s also among the most timely and relevant.

The film is the real-life story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), who left New York City when he decided in his early 40s that a change was due and he wanted to make something more of his life.

The year was 1972 and, along with his boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco), Milk moved to San Francisco, where it was becoming known that in the Castro District of that city, gay men and women were relocating and opening up shop in what had become a depressed Irish Catholic neighborhood.

Seeing an opportunity, Harvey and Scott opened Castro Camera and attempted to become members of the business scene. Because of their sexuality, which they refused to conceal because doing so would be a lie, which was unacceptable to them, they were shut out, but not undone.

Realizing there’s always strength in numbers, Milk became politically organized and asked the gay population to frequent only gay-owned or gay-friendly shops and businesses. They did so — and Milk won. Those who chose to discriminate saw their businesses close. Those who didn’t saw their businesses flourish.

And here, by merely raising his voice in the face of discrimination, Milk got his first taste of political activism and the change that can come from it. What Milk wanted was equality for all citizens. What he saw in the Castro District was the chance to promote that and to set an example for the rest of the state, perhaps even the country. Since he realized rather late in life that he had the power to motivate, he decided to run for the city’s Board of Supervisors. It took him three times to finally win, but when he did, he became the country’s first openly gay elected official.

No small task, that, particularly in the wake of Proposition 6, a measure to fire all homosexual teachers and their supporters from their positions that was sweeping the country. Chief juice shucker and born-again Christian Anita Bryant was spearheading that effort — which was akin to a witch hunt — and people were listening. Milk was one of them. He decided to gather those closest to him, such as Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch, wonderful) and Ann Rosenberg (Alison Pill), to fight her. What he did was to call for all gay men and women to come out of the closet so those around them would realize that they knew and loved someone who happened to be gay.

As a result, Milk became a target.

For those who don’t know Milk’s history, read no further — just see the movie if it’s ever released in our area and view what likely will be an Academy Award nomination, at the very least, for Sean Penn, whose performance is raw, exciting, sexual, introspective, provocative and spot-on.

For those who do know Milk’s story, they already know the terrible fate that befell him and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) when their colleague Dan White (James Brolin), also a city supervisor, gunned each down in City Hall in 1978, not long after Milk’s efforts to defeat Proposition 6 in California were successful.

Why did White murder Milk and Moscone? On one level, because he resented their influence and power. On another level, for the same reason Charlie Howard was murdered in Bangor on July 7, 1984, when Shawn Mabry, Daniel Ness and Jim Baines chased him, harassed him and threw him over the State Street Bridge into Kenduskeag Stream, where he drowned. Or for the very reason Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in Wyoming (his death later occurred at Poudre Valley Hospital in Colorado). Milk and Shepard were openly gay; Moscone, a heterosexual, was a sympathizer. And so hatred, left unchallenged by the major-ity, was allowed to thrive, fester and funnel their way.

On a deeper level, the movie suggests that White himself, a married man with a child, was a closeted homosexual. In one scene in which White is drunk, he nearly reveals this to Milk. So, you have to wonder — did White snuff that which he couldn’t face in himself?

Beyond the performances, every one of which is terrific, what’s so great about “Milk” is that Van Sant resists the urge to overlook Milk’s flaws. Milk is viewed by many in the gay community as a martyr, which is fair enough, but Van Sant is wise to look through the haze of that martyrdom to mine a more complete picture.

He presents Milk as a complicated man — sometimes difficult, often controlling — who took his public position and the power that came with it so seriously it twice led to the unraveling of two key personal relationships. Scott left him. His other partner, the unstable Jack Lira (Diego Luna), hanged himself because he felt that Milk neglected him.

And yet Milk pressed on, fighting for equality, making waves, friends and enemies, until one man, whose own power rested in the belief of a loaded gun, decided that enough was enough. He took those fatal shots, but as this movie powerfully reveals, not the legacies of those he killed.

Grade: A

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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