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(2008) *** 1/2 R
127 min. Focus Features. Director: Gus Van Sant. Cast: Sean Penn, Allison Pill, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, James Franco.

/content/films/3264/3.jpg“My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.” The signature line captures the character of the first openly gay man elected to major office in the U.S.: it’s both tongue in cheek, in mocking the homophobic notion of gay recruitment, and serious, in Milk’s earnest efforts to expand the ranks of his supporters. Since Milk’s primary theme was hope (his most well-honed patter being dubbed “The Hope Speech”), and one of his most successful political battles succeeded in taking down the anti-gay Proposition 6, the story of his political career remains timely in this election year. By the time Gus Van Sant’s Milk hits theaters in the last week of November, the fates of the “audacity of hope” candidate and Proposition 8 have been decided, priming a young generation of newly engaged voters to learn some history about the post-Stonewall development of the gay rights movement.

Working from an original script by Dustin Lance Black, out director Van Sant succeeded in beating the long-aborning "The Mayor of Castro Street" to the screen. Among the current crop of stars, Sean Penn seems the ideal choice to play Milk, and his work is likely to win him his fourth Oscar nomination (if not his second win). The film covers the years 1970-1978, beginning with Milk meeting lover Scott Smith (James Franco) on the eve of Milk’s 40th birthday and ending with the candlelight vigil following his assassination by Dan White (Josh Brolin), a fellow member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Milk turns out to be a scrupulous recounting of a period of political history. Within the bounds of a two-hour dramatic film, Black and Van Sant reveal a great deal about the political landscape in the 1970s while also putting a special emphasis on political philosophy: how to grab attention, win the hearts and minds of supporters, and achieve change. In a starkly effective move transporting audiences to a more hostile political climate, Van Sant opens with vintage footage of police raids on gay bars. The story also traces Milk’s development from closeted “suit” to openly gay hippie to viable (and again suited) political candidate. In his final phase, Milk demands that gay people come out of the closet (“Privacy is the enemy…Try telling the truth for a change”)—though Smith reminds him of the closeted man he was when Smith met him.

Stoking the fire of Milk’s campaigns for public office are the anti-gay efforts of holy-rolling singer Anita Bryant and the cause of California State Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare): Proposition 6, which would have mandated the firing of gay teachers and any public employee who voiced support for gay rights. As he rallies supporters, Penn’s Milk consistently voices his political reasoning. “It’s not just about winning,” he insists. “This is not just jobs or issues,” he tells White. “This is our lives we’re fighting for.” Encapsulating his approach to campaigning, Milk explains, “Politics is theater…You say, ‘I’m here,’ to get their attention.” Milk proves his point with a penchant for pies in the face: their careful employment in the film demonstrates the martyrdom of his personal life for the sake of his public one.

As for Van Sant’s own “theater,” Milk is pitched somewhere between his indie films and his Hollywood efforts. Harris Savides’ photography gives the film a naturalistic period feel, and Elliot Graham’s editing supplies additional artful touches. For his part, Penn displays an appropriate range of energetic politicking to subtlety in private moments (as in the framing scenes depicting Milk recording a message to be played in the event of his assassination), though he can be accused at times of overplaying the fey mannerisms and vocalizations. Penn gets sterling support from on-a-roll Brolin, Franco (delivering his best big-screen work to date), Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill as campaign workers Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg, Victor Garber as Mayor George Moscone, Diego Luna as Milk intimate Jack Lira, and Stephen Spinella as political rival/colleague Rick Stokes.

Those familiar with Milk’s story may find the film somewhat dramatically inert as it dutifully crams in the details of the man’s political career. Black and Van Sant compensate by awkwardly underlining the overtly dramatic personal moments: playing up Milk’s documented love of opera as a parallel to his tragic end and repeating a scene in which he suggests he may not live to see fifty. That Milk is merely excellent and not transcendent should not obscure its importance to popular culture and ability to bring Milk’s story to a broader audience during the latest crossroads in the gay civil rights movement.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 3/10/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Universal delivers Milk to Blu-ray in an impeccable transfer that neatly preserves its theatrical look. A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does comparable honors for the theatrical audio experience, especially in giving full body to Danny Elfman's score. Bonus features are slim, anticipating a probable "double dip" release with added content.

What we get—a little over a half-hour of featurettes—is still welcome. "Remembering Harvey Milk" (13:21, HD) gathers former SF City Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, campaign writer Frank Robinson, campaign photographer Daniel Nicoletta, campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, Coors boycott organizer Allan Baird, and historical consultant Cleve Jones to chat about their experiences with Milk.

"Hollywood Comes to San Francisco" (14:32, HD) offers behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with producer Dan Jinks, Josh Brolin, Joseph Cross, Brandon Boyce, Denis O'Hare, James Franco, Diego Luna, Dustin Lance Black, Jones, producer Bruce Cohen, Lucas Grabeel, Alison Pill, Stephen Spinella, Kronenberg, and Kelvin Yu.

"Marching for Equality" (7:58, HD) focuses specifically on the film's on-location recreation of a pivotal march. Participants include Jones, historical consultant Gilbert Baker, Nicoletta, and march extras Mick Pitash and Charles Leavitt.

Lastly, the disc includes the usual BD-Live hookup for sharing My Scenes and looking up added content like trailers.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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