It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since two San Francisco politicians were assassinated by a disgruntled former county supervisor. It’s also painfully disheartening to accept that Proposition 8, allowing same sex marriages, was just turned down by California voters.

Three decades ago The City, as northern Californians call it, was reeling from the specter of death. First, was the horrendous massacre of more than 400 of San Francisco’s former residents in the jungles of Guyana, doomed disciples of the mad preacher James Jones. Then, in the city’s downtown civic center, across from its famous Opera House, gay civil rights advocate county commissioner Harvey Milk and the city’s open-minded new mayor, George Moscone, were assassinated. The city and gay men all over the country were plunged into grief. Milk, the film, brilliantly recreates that troubling time in our country’s history and hits home its relevance for today. With Sean Penn’s remarkable performance, Harvey Milk will stand as one of film’s most perfectly realized American heroes.

Fearful of being assassinated, 48-year old Harvey Milk (Sean Penn, All the King’s Men) dictates his story into a tape recorder and we see its highlights in flashback. We meet Milk on a subway stairway in New York city. He’s an insurance executive, dressed in a suit and tie. He runs into and is immediately smitten with a gorgeous young man, Scott Smith (James Franco, Pineapple Express). Using his prodigious charm, Milk convinces the reluctant stranger to come home and celebrate his birthday with him. Thus starts a long, loving relationship that takes Milk out of his humdrum corporate existence across country to San Francisco’s vibrant gay Castro District.

At first all Milk wants to do is melt into the exciting gay community in his goofy hippie garb. But the temper of the times sweeps him up. Women, ethnic minorities, people with physical disabilities, farm workers — everyone with a cause is fighting for their civil rights. Disgusted with the mistreatment of gay men, including murder by roving bands of gay bashers, Milk gets the activist bug. He tries unsuccessfully twice to get elected to city council. During the campaigns, he discovers the power of a positive message: “Without hope, life is not worth living.” A charismatic speaker, he quickly learns how to rile up a crowd, and inspires a motley band of supporters to work tirelessly with him, especially loyal idealists, such as Cleve Jones (Emil Hirsch, Into the Wilderness).

Shamelessly uninhibited among gay men, Milk decides to make himself acceptable to straights–he cuts his hair, revives his suit-wearing persona and becomes an openly gay politician who can sashay easily in both the straight and gay worlds.

“I’m Harvey Milk and I’ve come to recruit you!” he greets the growing crowds. After years of exhausting effort, he gets elected to San Francisco’s County Board of Supervisors and becomes the first openly elected gay official in the history of the country. But his relationship with Smith is shattered and Milk seeks comfort with a needy, unstable faun named Jack Lira (Diego Luna, The Terminal).

Used to applause, Milk’s ego sometimes goes unchecked. Because he’s out of the closet, he demands that every other gay man do likewise, a harsh unrealistic expectation. In other words, Milk is not a saint. He’s a passionate and extraordinarily compassionate man, but life in the public eye, so long desired, does not give him the happiness he had hoped for. It also scares him. Death threats begin almost from day one of his activism. No one suspects that it will be another freshman county commissioner, a conservative Catholic Dan White (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men) who will bring the careers of Milk and Mayor Moscone to a tragic end. White’s attorneys use the infamous “Twinkie” defense in an attempt to explain his insanity.

In a film year noted by outstanding male performances, Sean Penn soars the highest, creating a riveting, unforgettable performance that is so realistic you’re shocked when the theatre lights come on and you realize you’ve just seen a movie, and haven’t really been living side by side with Harvey Milk for 2 hours. Complementing Penn is an ensemble cast of equal brilliance. Several of Milk’s surviving real-life friends make cameo appearances in the film, lending it a touching verisimilitude.

There are two key elements to remember when lauding film performances. First is that an actor needs a good script, and in my opinion, Dustin Lance Black’s script for Milk is so good it’s hard to believe it was written by someone with relatively little professional experience. More understandable is the second key element, a director with vision who pulls all the disparate elements of a movie together into a seamless whole–and this was accomplished by veteran director Gus Van Sant (Finding Forrester).

As superb as Milk is, it misses perfection by one element that few other critics have commented on. Being a film about the struggles of a gay man in a gay community, Milk doesn’t feel the need to remember that women constitute half of the world’s population. There is only one real female part, Milk’s lesbian campaign manager played ably by Allison Pill (Dan in Real Life). Forgotten in this tale, but not in life I hope, are the real women who supported, encouraged, voted for and loved the men in the gay rights movement–the mothers, sisters, co-workers, friends, children and even wives.

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