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"Milk" is a tour de force

Posted at 9:15 AM on November 26, 2008 by Euan Kerr

Gus Van Sant's "Milk" opens with a sobering array of newsreel footage of police raids on gay bars and clubs. The shocking and saddening thing about the slightly bleached footage is the way all of the men being led away cover their faces, shamed and humiliated. They just keep coming, one after another, to be crammed into a police van and driven away.

Things have changed a lot in the 30 years since Harvey Milk and his allies changed the political face of the United States by getting his elected to the San Francisco Board of City Supervisors. Milk's name has faded into history, but Van Sant wants to change that, and with Sean Penn in the title role "Milk" seems likely to succeed.

"Milk" quickly lets the audience know that the central character was gunned down with Mayor George Moscone by a former City Supervisor Dan White. What follows is the story of the tumultuous last eight years of Milk's life, when he decided to leave New York and move to San Francisco, and then became politically active.

Penn plays the role with great exuberance, capturing Milk's unorthodox power as an organizer, and also the sadness of his personal life. Milk ran unsuccessfully for the city council a number of times, and the California legislature, and Van Sant deftly shows how Milk learned from political failure, and created a successful political movement which not only got him elected as the first openly gay official in a major political office, but it also defeated a controversial state wide referendum which was to ban gays and lesbians from being teachers.

It's a remarkable story, with resonance in what happened in the most recent elections. "Milk" is a story of incredible highs and crushing lows, aided by remarkable performances by Penn, and a host of others including Josh Brolin as Dan White, James Falco as Milk's lover who becomes his early campaign manager, and Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, the march organizer who went on to organize the AIDS quilt.

Van Sant acknowledges an earlier film "The Times of Harvey Milk" as being a great inspiration, and if there is any justice that great documentary will enjoy a new lease of life as a result.

Later today on All Things Considered we'll have an interview with a Twin Cities woman who worked with Milk. That too is a remarkable story.

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