Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 51
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
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For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

SUCCESS AT LAST: Finally, after his third attempt, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) celebrates his victory in the race for the office of Supervisor in the Castro district of San Francisco. Sadly he was assassinated by a homophobe within his first year in office.

Milk: Sean Penn Shines as Gay Pioneer Harvey Milk

Kam Williams

Harvey Milk (1930-1978) was a trailblazing pioneer in 1977 when he became the first openly gay person to be elected to a political office in the State of California. The outspoken activist had represented San Francisco’s Castro District as a City Supervisor for less than a year when he and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) were murdered by Dan White (Josh Brolin), a disgruntled rival and former Supervisor. The assassination turned Milk into a martyr, and to this day he is as a symbol of courage and hope for homosexuals everywhere.

Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant, is an historical account of the rise and sudden fall of a cult hero and it is also an intimate character study of a complicated personality. The film stars Academy Award winner Sean Penn (Mystic River), who should be a shoo-in for his fifth Oscar nomination for his performance in the title role.

The picture couldn’t be more timely, in light of the controversy surrounding the recent passage of Proposition 8 which bans same sex marriages in California. The opening shows a black and white collage of archival footage of arrests and intimidations of homosexuals, and of police raids of gay bars during less enlightened times. The opening sequence ends with an ashen faced fellow Supervisor Diane Feinstein announcing the murders of Milk and Moscone.

Harvey Milk then proceeds to narrate his story in a series of flashbacks. He presumably had a premonition of his impending fate and dictated a memoir into a tape recorder shortly before he was killed. The narration begins with “This is only to be played in the event of my death by assassination.“ The scene then shifts to New York City on his 40th birthday when he met Scott Smith (James Franco), a handsome young newcomer from Jackson, Mississippi.

Love blossoms despite their considerable difference in age, and in 1972 they decide to move to San Francisco and open a camera shop. Now out of the closet, a flamboyant Harvey is shocked by the bigotry he encounters because of his sexual preference in a city that is supposedly tolerant. As a consequence, Harvey becomes a gay activist and community organizer and forges allegiances with labor, blacks, and other groups.

Unfortunately, his activism takes a toll on his relationship with Scott, who moves out and is eventually replaced by a boyfriend (Diego Luna) who is more in agreement with Harvey’s political agenda. His first two election bids (in 1973 and 1975) fail, however, he finally enjoys the sweet taste of victory after a hard fought campaign in 1977, only to be assassinated within a year by Dan White. At the trial White got off with a relative slap on the wrist after his attorney used what later came to be known as the “Twinkies made me do it” defense.

Hauntingly, Harvey’s voiceover persists in the picture posthumously, exhorting the masses to continue the movement, not only on behalf of homosexuals, but for all disenfranchised people. Expect to shed a few tears during the closing credits when real life photos and updates of the principals portrayed in the movie are shown together with the actors playing them.

A biopic that humanizes an icon and simultaneously conveys the significance of Milk’s ideals on our culture.

Excellent (4 stars). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and violence. Running time: 130 minutes. Studio: Focus Features.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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