Community leader and activist Harvey Milk would open his rallies with an introduction, followed by a frank revelation of his intention: “I am here to recruit you.” It was that very same unassuming approach that made him popular, accessible, and influential, as evidenced in Gus Van Sant’s latest biopic, Milk. The movie stars a brilliant Sean Pean as California’s first openly gay elected official. The marriage of Van Sant and Penn is perfect, as together they carve a most vulnerable and believable character without taking the oh-too-easy bait to sanctify a hero. Simply put, Penn’s Milk is as flawed as he is heroic. It is also the battery of other actors—a beguiling James Franco with whom Penn shares heart-breaking chemistry, a scene-stealing Diego Luna, a wonderfully nuanced Emile Hirsch, a sensational Josh Brolin, and a terrific Allison Pill—who make the film such a treat.
Given the film’s emphasis on community, leadership, and opposition to the kind of inane divisiveness that has precluded this country from evolving, the movie feels eerily germane. A significant portion of Milk is devoted to the community’s struggle against the fear of Otherness as spewed by beauty-queen-cum-self-righteous-hate-monger Anita Bryant, and California’s Proposition 6, which would have called for the immediate professional termination of gay—and gay-sympathizing, no less—teachers. Given today’s political atmosphere, the proximity to the election, and California’s current battle over Proposition 8, Milk is as telling of its period as much as it is of ours. Overall, it is an excellent epic that should demand no recruitment, but simply feel the love of free will.
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