"Milk" was supposed to be a triumphant capstone to the gay rights movement's victories of recent years. Planned to be released just weeks after the largest state in the union ratified the right to gay marriage by popular vote, Gus Van Sant's opus about the slain gay rights leader was to have shown us just how far we've come in the past 40 years.
That didn't work out quite as planned, did it?
One wonders what the effect on California's Proposition 8 would have been if "Milk" had screened before the election instead of after.
Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the nation's history. The film chronicles his move to San Francisco and the evolution of its Castro district into the nation's pre-eminent hot spot for gay rights activism. Joining him for the first half of this quest is Scott (James Franco) and for the second, Diego (Jack Lira).
Harvey's political ambitions and thirst for equality cost him both relationships. In that respect, this biopic is a typical portrait of a driven, monomaniacal overachiever: He sacrifices personal happiness for social progress.
Josh Brolin plays Harvey's nemesis - as well as eventual assassin - on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a former firefighter by the name of Dan White. Mr. Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black suggest that Dan may have killed Harvey (and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone) because of his own confused sexuality; in his trial, Dan took refuge behind what has come to be known as the "Twinkie defense," claiming blood sugar drove his irrational behavior.
Mr. Penn is sure to garner his fifth Oscar nomination for his performance here, even though its over-the-top flamboyance is better suited to a "Saturday Night Live" skit. Even if the actor's histrionics accurately reflect those of Harvey, it comes across on-screen as hopelessly stereotypical. Mr. Penn would have been better off moderating his performance slightly, a la Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia."
"Milk" tackles some serious issues about equal treatment under the law and the power of a minority community to determine its standing in the larger world through political activism. Still, it's tough to shake the feeling that this movie is little more than self-conscious Oscar bait, a politically correct flick focused on an in-the-news issue driven by two previous winners looking for more statues.
RATING: R (Language, some sexual content and brief violence)
CREDITS: Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Dustin Lance Black
RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes
WEB SITE: www.milkthemovie MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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