Penn gives the world hope in ‘Milk’

By By John Fitzgerald

By John Fitzgerald

As a critic and lover of film, I’m always the most anxious when I get to write about one of the greats, and Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” is just that. From beginning to end, the film had a firm grip on my attention. My mind and eyes were fixated on the screen as a previously unfamiliar story was unfolded before my eyes8212;the biographical story of Harvey Milk.

Early on in the film, we learn that Milk (Sean Penn), 48, has recently been elected to San Francisco’s 5th District Board of Supervisors. Milk was the first openly gay elected official in California. The opening scene, which is revisited throughout the film, depicts Milk in 1978, a few months prior to his assassination, pondering the past eight years of his life. During his reflection, we see that in 1970, Milk was both frustrated and unsatisfied with his life so far.

During this time of introspection, Milk was making the transition from leaving the closeted lifestyle that many gays are unfortunately accustomed to. Frustrated in New York, Milk met Scott Smith (James Franco) and together they moved to San Francisco, eventually opened a camera shop on Castro Street and soon became lovers. With the help of friends such as Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) and Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), Milk used Castro Camera as a home base to jump-start his highly influential career in San Francisco politics.

In 1978, eight years after arriving in San Francisco, Milk found himself seated alone at a kitchen table making a tape-recorded will. He cryptically states that the tape “is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination.” We learn very early on that Milk was keenly aware8212;as many influential figures who have gone before him8212;of the likelihood that he might die for what he both preached and practiced. Less than a year after being elected, Milk was gunned down just moments after the same killer assassinated the city’s mayor, George Moscone.

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who also serves as executive producer) has written a fairly straightforward story with “Milk.” There are no big surprises and no twists and turns, but the film is in no way less effective as a result of its conservative approach. Sometimes playing it safe pays big dividends. The tale itself is so close to Black’s heart that anything less wouldn’t do it justice. An openly gay man himself, Black was intrigued with the story of Harvey Milk. So much so, that on the weekends8212;when not writing for the HBO hit “Big Love”8212;Black was traveling five hours between Southern California and San Francisco for almost four years. He was footing the bill with his credit cards just to write the story on speculation, because in the beginning he said it seemed like he might be the only one interested in the story.

While chatting with Black recently, I asked him if he took any creative liberties in re-creating the story. He told me that the liberty he took was not over-embellishing. He said the stories he heard firsthand from Milk’s friends and associates were so interesting and so colorful that he needed to add nothing, but rather just tell the story as it was. Black’s efforts are a total success.

In addition to the writing, the entire cast in “Milk” is superb. It is an actor’s movie through and through and Van Sant directs accordingly. Penn’s performance in particular will be added to the list of all-time greats. What a smile! I have no reservation in predicting that Penn will win Best Actor8212;no question. On a side note, I haven’t seen Penn play such a happy character since he was Jeff Spicoli and times were fast at Ridgemont High. In short time, Penn’s performance as Milk will be equally unforgettable.

In the end, it seems that the most important thing Milk taught, above all the important messages of which he was spokesman, was that gays, if they’re to be taken seriously and if the general public is to feel empathy toward their cause, must come out of the damned closet. Milk said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door.” This film will help spread the message of acceptance that Milk began preaching close to four decades ago. Milk’s message is as important today, if not more so, than it was in the 30 years previous. It could not have come at a better time in America as the human rights of gay communities everywhere are being pushed aside. Milk mentioned in his tape-recorded will that, “It’s about giving those young people out there hope. You gotta give “em hope.”

“Milk” does just that.

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