The Gospel of Harvey Milk (Movie Review)

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While not up there in the annals of transformation with Robert De Niro’s poundage or Daniel Day-Lewis’s palsy, Sean Penn’s smile lines in Milk are a wonder. They’re not crinkles, they’re furrows; they seem to stretch all the way down to his soul. As the gay activist Harvey Milk, who was shot to death in 1978 along with the San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, the volatile Penn is unprecedentedly giddy. There’s anger in his Milk, but it never festers—it’s instantly channeled into political action. In the tedious remake of All the King’s Men, Penn went in for Method-y pauses in the scenes of Willie Stark finding his soapbox voice: He seemed too inward an actor to play a natural rabble-rouser. But as Milk, he shakes off Method self-attention the way Milk shook off the shame of being gay. As the personal becomes political, he opens all the windows and gets visibly high on the breeze.

Milk is a hagiography, but there’s nothing wrong with that if you believe, as director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black obviously do, in the gospel of Harvey Milk. And queer hagiography is bracingly different from that other kind, in that it’s often, so to speak, ass-backward, the road to rebirth leading through the flesh instead of around it. There aren’t many life stories of saints in which the hero’s salvation begins with picking up a studly young Midwesterner in a New York City subway station on the eve of said hero’s 40th birthday. After their happy sex, Milk lies beside Scott Smith (James Franco) and muses on the closeted life he has lived until then. So he sets off with his new lover for San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, for a life to be lived aboveground, in the light.

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