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Cinema Signal:

The Mayor of Castro Street:
The Life and Times of Harvey Milk
by Randy Shilts
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Milk"

After over-playing a powerful political figure on the local level in the South ("All the King's Men"), actor Sean Penn takes on another political leader to far better effect and success. His depiction of Harvey Milk--the first gay supervisor of San Francisco, California and of the U.S. of A--is a model of unerring biographical marksmanship. And, it's finely contained in an utterly credible homosexual framework by director Gus Van Sant ("Paranoid Park," "Finding Forrester").

To some tastes, the sexual relationships might edge into taboo territory--this isn't a work with any pretenses toward appealing to the mainstream, thus allowing Van Sant and his screenwriter Dustin Lance Black the narrative space they needed to capture the realities of the movement that Milk brought about, and its players. A high level of accuracy is, therefore, assured.

Harvey Milk (Penn), a 40-year old New Yorker with the accent to prove it, moves to San Francisco to find a less embracing culture than he wished for. Running low on funds, he opens a photo shop in the area known as the Castro, after a movie house within its borders next to the infamous (?) Haight District. Milk will be thereafter known as a "local merchant" or "businessman," despite the open hostility of his neighbors and other enemies. And, as moves go, he puts them on blond, curly-haired Scott Smith (James Franco) whom he all but runs into in a spontaneous subway encounter, resulting in a major life relationship.

The film then goes on to trace the steps in the formation of a political leader. While Milk may not have seen himself in the role when he arrived on the scene, somewhere during the time his little business became a focal point for other gays and as he became embroiled in the acts of police harrassment and brutality, he took on the needs of the community to channel and direct their numbers and resources to fight back politically.

Thinking his growing constituency might translate into a real shot at the office, the "local merchant" ran for City Supervisor. When he lost, he ran again, and again, losing by ever decreasing numbers each time out. By now, his devotion to grabbing the brass ring of office was a 24/7 activity, even after Scott, who was functioning as Harvey's campaign manager, gave up on having a private life and quit both the relationship and the campaign.

Harvey, though, goes on in both spheres of life, the personal and the political, meeting hot-headed Jack Lira (Diego Luna) and moving him in. As his political savvy grew, so did his campaign. With the able assistance of volunteer Anne Kronenberg (butch, frizzzy-haired no-nonsense Alison Pill) as Scott's replacement, and with the advantage of local redistricting, he finally wins the office and comes to power. The only drag, now in 1977, is Lira, whose selfish demands for attention are disturbing everyone interested in Harvey and the implementation of his movement.

Alison Pill (who hardly needs a T-shirt to tell us what
a hot little campaigner she is) and Emile Hirsch
Milk's efforts pay off when California, through an initiative, backs gay rights, vindicating him in his struggle, which then turns into a major skirmish against right-winger Anita Bryant, a singer who gained a media pulpit through her popularity to mount a state-by-state assault on gay teachers. Finding her way to San Francisco, she becomes the poster girl for Harvey's enemies.

Politics being what it is, Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber) sees the need for Supervisor Harvey's backing on issues and becomes a vital part of conjoined political alignment. Less assured is Harvey's association with fellow supervisor Dan White whose nature is depicted as more erratic than McCain's in the last presidential election. His initial acceptance of Harvey and his gay agenda becomes more and more suspect.

[It shouldn't come as a spoiler to say what came about as a result of Milk's attempts to placate his changeable colleague's developing animosity since it's a biopic based on history, but if you aren't aware of that history, skip the next paragraph.]

Dan White turns out to be homicidally unbalanced and Milk's mortal enemy who, one day, in a fit of rage caused by the mayor's decision to appoint someone else to the special responsibility he enjoyed, with paranoia and self-loathing fueling his animosity, comes to City Hall and shooting Harvey and the mayor to death, reasoning that they are to blame for his not doing better. Judge and executioner.

Fine casting implements Van Sant's rather elegant re-telling and affectionate detailing of this tragic moment in California history, with Penn a very able contributor to the depiction. Where, two projects ago, Penn pushed the bombast and coercive style of his political subject, Penn's and his director's game plan here is to show Milk gently prodding the prevailing complacency out of his supporters, gay and otherwise. His manner of arousing them out of self-emasculating political slumber brought his gay compatriots into agreement with his theory that coming out of the closet is essential, by making mainstream straights realize that they work with gays, that they know and respect gays and, most viscerally, that they've given birth to gays. This political insight has the feel of realism and suggests Milk's influence as a crucial turning point in achieving goals and rights.

Get it now! (Click on item link)
The Blu-ray Edition DVD
The Soundtrack
by Danny Elfman

For Penn's tone and nuanced consistency in taking his character modestly into the world of soap boxes and populist power, Penn's performance may well widen his considerable fan base. It has the power to turn heads and, coming this late in the year, provide the possibility of award notice, like a nomination.

Hirsch's presence, while relatively minor, remains vivid and sparkles with the dash of good humor and a light touch. All the more so for his having led us to deep tragedy in "Into the Wild" (under Penn's auteurial hand) and the slickly contrived "Speed Racer." Franco is another ideal casting, both for looks and talent.

Brolin, in an exceptional display of versatility after the sympathetic protagonist of "No Country For Old Men" and a fine bit of biographical portraiture in "W," channels himself into villainy and unspoken mental unhingement--another praiseworthy achievement.

Danny Elfman's score is fun-filled, with tracks like David Bowie's "Queen Bitch," and Sopwith Camel's "Hello, Hello." Theme tracks range from "Dog Poo" to "Gay Rights Now."

All in all, from a filmmaking aspect if not a subject-worthy one (from some hostile viewpoints), this is a biopic whose qualities made "Milk" worth doing.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Sean Penn as Harvey Milk
City Supervisor, ex-Local Merchant

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