Tale of the city

Pub date November 25, 2008
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

If last week’s extensive Guardian coverage didn’t convince you, here’s my two cents: see Milk. Not that you may have needed convincing; seems like everyone in San Francisco is stoked to see Gus Van Sant’s political biopic, with Sean Penn starring as the first openly gay man elected to public office in America. If you live here, it’s impossible to separate yourself completely from the story — even if you’re too young to remember the history firsthand –- since so much of it is already familiar. There’s City Hall, Milk’s "theater" and the site of his 1978 assassination, along with Mayor George Moscone, by fellow supe Dan White; the Castro District, meticulously made over to mimic Milk’s 1970s; a dog-poopy moment in Duboce Park; and references to everything from district elections to this very newspaper.

Still, even out-of-towners, except bigoted ones, will be moved by Milk. Milk’s experiences allow the film to take a personal look at the struggle for LGBT civil rights in America, with a particular focus on Anita Bryant’s cross-country hate crusade. Scenes showing the triumphant defeat of Prop. 6 — a 1978 proposal to fire all gay teachers and those who supported them — are bittersweet in the wake of the passage of Prop. 8. At times, Van Sant’s film feels eerily timely, down to the spontaneously assembled protests on Castro at Market, and its focus on a politico who believed in hope despite the odds.

But Milk is more than its message — despite its many sober moments, it also manages to be an entertaining film. Thank Van Sant’s steady direction, which (mostly) avoids melodrama and integrates archival footage with seamless ease, and a Penn performance that feels remarkably natural even though he clearly obsessed over perfecting Milk’s voice and mannerisms. Among the supporting players, Emile Hirsch (funny and energetic as activist Cleve Jones) and Josh Brolin (fumbling and creepy as killer White) are standouts. Less successful is Diego Luna as Milk’s needy lover Jack Lira, though it’s not really Luna’s fault; the Lira subplot comes across as distracting, adding unnecessary drama to a story already brimming with compelling conflict. Look for Penn to scoop up mad awards-season praise, all the more deserved if his inspiring turn fires up a new generation to follow in Milk’s footsteps.

Milk opens Wed/26 at the Castro Theatre.