I had wanted to see "Milk" ever since it first came out back in November, but of course first I had to wait until it actually came to a theater near me. Now that award season is kicking in, I finally got my chance to see it this week and I wasn't really disappointed.
"Milk" is the story of Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn in an Oscar-nominated performance), who spearheaded the gay right's movement in San Francisco back in the late '70s and became the first openly gay man elected to public office. Not long after, Milk was killed by rival councilman Dan White, who also killed the city's mayor. As the movie opens, Milk is reading a sort of mini-autobiography into a tape recorder in case he's assassinated.
The movie then flashes back 8 years to 1970, when Milk is a closeted insurance company worker, who picks up a younger man named Scotty (James Franco) in a stairwell. Scotty convinces Milk to come out of the closet and so for a couple years they become hippies, finally settling into the Castro neighborhood, which at that time was just becoming a haven for gay people. Milk opens a camera store that becomes a gay hangout and begins to organize. He gains an unlikely ally in the Teamsters, who seek his help to boycott Coors beer. After the success of this, Milk decides to run for the city council.
He is defeated that year and the next year, and the next year. Each year the margins of defeat get smaller as Milk continues making a name for himself. At the same time as he's becoming a hero to gay people everywhere, he and Scotty are becoming estranged. A change in the districting laws of San Francisco finally mean that Milk can be elected to the city council, at the same time as Dan White, who represents a traditional Irish-Catholic ward. Milk tries to befriend White but they become enemies when Milk refuses to back White's plan to move a psychiatric center.
From there Milk leads the fight against Prop 6 that wants to eliminate all gay teachers in California, or those with the audacity to support gay teachers. (Of cours enow in these enlightened times we'd never do that. We respect gay people as long as they don't want to get married like everyone else.) At the moment of his greatest success, Milk's life ends in tragedy.
I liked this movie and Sean Penn does a good job of bringing Milk to life. The only real problem is the other characters seem far less dimensional. What is especially disappointing is that the Dan White character isn't explored more in-depth, so we don't really know WHY he does what he does. I didn't really understand why he resigned from the city council in the first place, except he was from a traditional Irish-Catholic family and definitely feeling out of place. Maybe that's all you need to know. The Scotty character is never little more than the concerned spouse, a role traditionally given to wives in films like this. And the other characters were similarly one-dimensional as the film focused mostly on Milk and his crusade.
Still, I enjoyed this more than "Benjamin Button" last week, which means it could be the best movie of the year. If possible I'd see "Slumdog Millionaire" next week, though I don't think I'll have time for the other Best Picture nominees.
If you get the chance and aren't close-minded to gay rights, I'd say to go out and watch this film, which is still relevant today as stupid laws like Prop 8 in California get passed. And really it's too bad the studio didn't release this earlier so people could have seen it before the elections.
That is all.
(My score 3 1/2 stars)
(Metacritic score: 84)