"Milk" ***1/2 (127 minutes)

February 3, 2009

In 1984, Rob Epstein's documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" received and richly deserved the Academy Award. Covering the assassination of this country's first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk in 1978, and the subsequent "Twinkie Defense" by assassin and fellow San Francisco City Supervisor, Dan White, the story has laid dormant for 25 years. Now, openly gay talented Director Gus Van Zant ("Drugstore Cowboy", "Good Will Hunting", "Elephant") revisits the scene of the crime with a beautifully rendered drama replete with some of the best acting talent around.

Let's start at the top with, arguably, one of the greatest actors on the planet, Sean Penn. Already an accomplished writer/director/producer, his performance as Harvey Milk is hands-down the most riveting and believable performance this year by an actor in a lead role. Will he win the Oscar for a second time (the first for "Mystic River" in 2004)? I'll present my Oscar thoughts on that in a couple of weeks.

Gus begins the docudrama showing Harvey putting his thoughts into a tape recorder in the event he is assassinated. The story shifts to 1972 when he was a researcher at Bache & Co. in New York and when he's about to turn 40. Admitting to a new lover that he hasn't done anything significant in his life, the tale follows a linear course as it chronicles his rise as a San Francisco's Castro Street camera shop owner (along with his partner Scott, wonderfully played by James Franco) to his election in 1977.

The film effectively relates the climate of the times by inserting actual news footage along with the staged set pieces to show how the Gay Rights Movement was continually being thwarted by the likes of Anita Bryant in Florida and the legislatures of many states who wanted to rid society of anyone who was gay. Reminiscent of Hitler's Germany, the discrimination this minority faced was unconscionable; and hard to believe that 30 years after Harvey was killed gay rights still have not been fully realized.

The director has infused the story, wonderfully written by first time screen writer Dustin Lance Black, with the actual characters that surrounded Harvey in real life. Along with Franco are wonderful turns by Emile Hirsch ("Into The Wild") who plays Cleve Jones, an unlikely recruit in Harvey's campaign circle, the always reliable Josh Brolin, who captures Dan White's paranoia precisely, and Mexican actor Diego Luna ("Y Tu Mama Tambien") who plays Harvey's lover after Scott leaves him.

Add a wonderful subdued soundtrack by oft AA nominated composer, Danny Elfman and the total is an amazing film documenting the murder that might have been the catalyst, as Harvey predicted, that brought a movement together.

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