dir. Gus Van Sant (Focus Features) -- 4.5 STARS

For many people around the country, the excitement of Barack Obama’s win in last month’s presidential election was tempered by a sense of outrage over the passing of Proposition 8 in California, and similar anti-gay marriage legislation in Arizona and Florida. Considering this political climate, the release of director Gus Van Sant’s new film, “Milk”—which chronicles the final eight years of the life of Harvey Milk, an openly gay politician in California in the 1970s—seems appropriate. “Milk” shows us how far we have come, but also how far we still have to go.

Harvey Milk, played by Oscar winner Sean Penn, is a man disturbed by the discrimination he experiences after coming out of the closet in New York City. Milk moves to San Francisco with his boyfriend, Scott Smith (James Franco). In California, the two become politically active, enlivening and inspiring the gay community to speak out against injustice.

Throughout the film, Milk is shown making a recording, which he says should be played only if he were to be assassinated. On the recording he says, “I tried to break the dam of major prejudice in this country.” Although Milk indeed begins to break down barriers, the movie foreshadows his untimely death.

“Police hated us, and we hated them right back,” Milk says on the tape. The film begins with actual black-and-white footage from the 1970s of anti-gay rioters and police brutality being used to quash gay protests. Van Sant also splices the film’s action with witness interviews about the violence. “All we could hear was screaming, crushing, smashing. It was terrifying,” one man says. This effective juxtaposition not only enhances the film’s plot, but also reminds the viewer of the story’s reality.

Sean Penn fully embodies Harvey Milk. Penn’s performance is a full and nuanced tribute to his character, and his approach to Milk’s sexuality is equally and appropriately nuanced. Penn proves his versatility as an actor capable of playing both internally tortured characters—like Jimmy Markum in “Mystic River”—and open, unguarded idealists like Milk.

Throughout the film, Van Sant uses opera, a passion of Milk’s, as a way to highlight the film’s turning points. In particular, the repetition of Puccini’s “Tosca”—one of Milk’s favorite operas—serves as a background for important events in his life and dramatizes his political and personal struggles. The music of “Tosca” underscores one scene in particular, in which Milk laments to Scott that he’s 40 and has done nothing with his life.

This scene, which occurs at the beginning and is repeated near the end, functions as both a visual and musical refrain that emphasizes Milk’s meteoric rise and tragic fall.

Much of the film deals with Milk’s multiple bids for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the different campaign tactics he tries. He runs unsuccessfully in 1975 and 1976 and is finally elected in 1977, saying in his recording that, “The movement is the candidate.” He works closely with Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), a young gay activist who moved to California to escape discrimination and becomes inspired by Milk and his cause.

After finally being elected, Milk’s main struggle is against Proposition 6, which stated that gays and their supporters were to be fired as teachers or educators because of the ways they could negatively affect the development of their students. This proposition, which was heavily favored by singer and then-celebrity Anita Bryant, had been passed in many other states around the country, but ultimately failed in California. As Milk says to his supporters, “A message of hope has been sent. There is a place for us. Brothers and sisters, we can come home again.”

Through Sean Penn’s stunning performance, Harvey Milk and his ideals and actions inspire us all never to give up hope, and to stand for the equal rights of all human beings. As he says: “No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase the words from the Declaration of Independence... This is what America is, take it or leave it.”


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