Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Believe it or not I remember ‘The Twinkie Defense’. I was just a boy when San Francisco councilman Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Muscone were assassinated by the loon Dan White, and though I vaguely remember the actual murders, I vividly remember when Dan White basically beat that rap. You see as an impressionable young lad I completely believed in the whole ‘Twinkie Defense’ and I kid you not, I have not eaten a Twinkie since. Any food product that makes people kill other people I didn’t want any part of. But director Gus Van Zant’s engaging biopic ‘Milk’ isn’t about the death of Harvey Milk or the trial of Dan White, which probably really needs to made into a movie by somebody someday, but about the life of Harvey Milk and features yet another amazing performance from actor Sean Penn.

The film opens with Harvey Milk sitting alone in his kitchen speaking into a tape recorder, probably mere hours before his death, chronicling the moments of his life which he believes could possibly lead to his assassination. Milk begins his story the day before his birthday, and it would appear that he’s cruising the train station looking for a young pretty plaything to provide for himself as a gift of sorts and to that end he meets Scott Smith (James Franco), takes him home, enjoys a night of love and laments how at the age of 40 that he hasn’t accomplished much of anything. Smith and Milk would become long time lovers and open a store in the San Francisco Castro district and immediately do battle with people who are ‘uncomfortable’ with their particular lifestyle.

Eventually Milk has had enough of the attacks and the discrimination and the lack of police support that the gay community is receiving and becomes an activist of sorts, even opting to run for city office. Though his first attempts were unsuccessful, he has managed to assemble a team of loyal workers who are passionate to his cause, leading Harvey Milk to be the first gay man in the United States to be elected to public office. Here Milk would have a number of public battles, going up against Anita Bryant, who I

had totally forgotten about… I wonder what Anita is up to now? Anyway he would fight with Anita and Senator John Briggs to keeps some rather Draconian anti-gay laws off the books. He would also make the acquaintance of fellow board member Dan White (Josh Brolin). At first Milk and White seemed to start out as allies, and though I don’t the validity of this, it is suspected the White battled his own repressed homosexual demons and eventually he and Milk became bitter enemies on a number of issues – most of them ‘family values’ oriented, or more so White became Harvey Milk’s bitter enemy, than vice versa, as the movie would tell it.

Before the films eventual unavoidable tragic conclusion we meet the people in the life of Harvey Milk, his triumphs his tragedies his flaws and how his life affected and touched everyone he came in contact with.

Van Sant’s ‘Milk’ is a very fine biographical picture which is completely set off by a mesmerizing performance by Sean Penn. Without knowing very much about Harvey Milk the man, Sean Penn captures the very essence of what he must have been like by creating a character that is human and flawed, and one who certainly didn’t go out seeking to change the world but almost had this fate thrust upon him. I gotta admit watching Sean Penn and James Franco swap spit was a little unsettling but dammit you can’t very well make a movie about gay dudes in love without showing some gay dudes sharing love now can you? Van Sant even handled the character Dan White quite expertly as he was played in the very capable hands of Josh Brolin. In a movie that really didn’t have any villains or heroes, just real people, and that would include Anita Bryant, Dan White was presented not as an ogre but as man who probably in his heart was probably trying to do the right thing. I didn’t get a clearer sense of what prompted this cat sneak a gun into the capitol building and murder a couple people, outside of the simple fact that the man was certifiably insane, but the film does raise some subtle ideas about what drove Dan White as opposed to broadly painting him as a Twinkie eating maniac.

As good as the performances were there seemed to be something missing in the film itself which didn’t give me that over whelming feeling that I was watching a ‘great man do great things’ essence that we often see in other biopics. I would say that the recent biography of the Notorious B.I.G. helmed by George Tillman Jr. actually did a better job of elevating the mythos of his subject than Van Sant’s biography did raising the mythos of Harvey Milk, though few would argue that Harvey Milk had a larger effect on American Society than Christopher Wallace.

Regardless this was possibly done by design to keep Harvey Milk from being anything other than the man that he was, and to that effect this movie was hugely successful with its wonderful direction, completely taking us back into another place and time, and of course yet another masterful performance by Sean Penn, one of the best, if not the best actor his generation.

Real Time Web