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Reviewed on 2008-12-10
Received[3.5]  out of 4 stars
Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn ("Mystic River") gives a bravura performance in the title role of Harvey Milk.

This political biopic directed by Gus Van Sant ("Elephant," "Good Will Hunting" and "Finding Forrester") covers the last eight and a half years of the first openly gay man to be voted into a major public office in America.

The movie opens with Milk recording his memoirs into a tape recorder. He realizes that he is a target because of his gay activist agenda and fears his imminent death at the hands of some disturbed individual. This private recording session is a clever device that forms the spine of this epic and ties everything together.

The movie’s starting point occurs in a subway station on the eve of Milk’s 40th birthday (May 21, 1970), when he propositions a stranger to come back to his apartment for sex.

Milk, then a clean-cut insurance salesman, confides to his new companion Scott Smith (an almost unrecognizable James Franco) that he has done nothing to be proud of in his life. He needs a change of scenery and implores Smith to run away with him. They settle in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco and open a camera shop.

Milk now looks like a hippie with long hair, beard and mustache. Milk forms an alliance with the Teamsters Union and rallies the homosexual community in a successful boycott of Coors beer. He stands on a soap box and begins his political career with an unsuccessful run for city supervisor.

After three lost elections, he catches a break when redistricting propels him to a landslide victory in 1977.

The highlight event of the movie occurs when Milk leads the fight against bigotry legislation aimed at firing all gay public school teachers in California. The proponents of this discriminatory measure are singer and religious zealot Anita Bryant and state senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare, born in Kansas City and recently seen as the doctor in "Changeling").

The gregarious, friendly and personable Milk urges everyone to come out of the closet and tell the truth to family, friends and employers.

He viewed privacy as the enemy. He felt that by making sexual orientation known to heterosexual neighbors, friends and acquaintances that the tide could turn on this all-important referendum.

This movie has a docudrama feel and expertly inserts archival newsreel footage with several segments of Walter Cronkite at the CBS anchor desk.

This emotionally powerful film is a fitting tribute to the memory of a great American martyr. His closing line of "You gotta give them hope" closely parallels the campaign message of president-elect Barack Obama.

The talented ensemble acting is among the best on screen for 2008. Emile Hirsch stands out in the supporting role of Cleve Jones, a brash, curly-haired street kid who becomes a crucial ally and gay movement leader. Josh Brolin follows up his lead performance in "W." with a key role as the homophobic city supervisor Dan White. The National Board of Review recently awarded him Best Supporting Actor of 2008 for this performance.

Victor Garber ("Alias") portrays Mayor George Moscone. Diego Luna ("Y tu mama tambien") plays Jack Lira, a footloose young Mexican who becomes Milk’s last important lover. Alison Pill has the only significant female part as "tough dyke" Anne Kronenberg, who runs Milk’s successful fourth campaign.

The movie brilliantly captures the tension between Milk’s public and private life. Acclaimed composer Danny Elfman ("Big Fish," "Men in Black" and "Good Will Hunting") scores again with music familiar and typical of the 1970s.

The movie goes way beyond "Brokeback Mountain," with passionate kisses, bedroom scenarios and other unflinching depictions of homosexual affection.

During the closing credits, photographs of the real people are shown and the striking resemblance to the actors propels the hair, makeup and clothing department to likely Oscar nominations. Penn, who even takes a pie in the face, establishes himself as one of the Academy Award frontrunners in the Best Actor category.

This is one of the most important and monumental films of 2008 that ardent cinema lovers must see on the big screen.

Opening exclusively at AMC Studio 30, Tivoli and the Rio.

Review By:
Keith Cohen, "The Movie Guy"


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