If you want a big slice of San Francisco this holiday season, I heartily recommend "Milk," the movie whose reviews are popping up in all of the on-line news sources. All critics seem to love it, and it is what I would call flawless, running from the assassination of City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone to the life to Harvey Milk as he leaves New York and changes the world via San Francisco to the assassination of City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
If you don't know about the premise of the movie, all you have to know is that Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician elected to public office in the United States. His heyday was the late seventies, after feeling useless to society as a closeted gay insurance salesman/banking employee in New York in the early seventies. He came to San Francisco TO BE openly gay, but the remarkable history lesson here is that San Francisco wasn't always open to the gay culture--the area that Milk settled in, the Castro, was once the center of the Irish Catholic conservative population of the City. But Milk worked hard to make life richer for everyone in San Francisco--for teamsters, blacks, the elderly, children, etc, and people started to see him as a voice of reason in a time when religious conservatives like Anita Bryant were making no sense at all.
Gus Van Sant, director of "Good Will Hunting," directed "Milk" and interlaces actual gay rights footage with footage he shoots in San Francisco and Orange County. It's hard to tell where his movie begins and the original footage ends, particularly in the fact that several of Milk's friends are in the movie as characters other than themselves. I was also relieved to see Emile Hirsch with meat back on his bones...after my brief stint with "Into the Wild" nightmares he was nearly baby-faced in this movie. The biggest surprise, of course, is Penn himself--watching "Mystic River" over four years ago I would have NEVER imagined him ever playing a gay man, but there he is, and armed with lines like the following:
Dan White (played by Josh Brolin): "Think about it, Harvey. Can two men procreate?"
Harvey Milk (played by Penn): "Not yet, Dan. But God knows we try!"
Penn delivers that line with such understated coyness that you have to laugh as a conspirator...and not with any discomfort. I expected Penn's performance to be roughly on par with what Richard Dreyfuss was trying to get away from when his character got the part of Richard III in "The Goodbye Girl," but Penn doesn't struggle. He just is. And he doesn't deliver with power to the masses. He steps before them, states a recruiter's prayer, and then delivers a tremendous amount of hope to everyone, not just the gay population.
As the movie wrapped up, all of us in the theatre were crying quietly, except for the guy sitting two seats away from me. He was sobbing, inspired.