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Posted Friday, February 13, 2009, at 3:48 PM

Sean Penn, right, stars as Harvey Milk in the Hollywood biopic. (Getty images)
By Steve E. Turner

From www.picassofish.blogspot.com

"Milk" is a captivating biographical film that explores the public and private life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office. It's well directed and presents a realistic picture of San Francisco in the 1970's.

And that would have been that if not for Sean Penn's performance. It truly is a wonder. The film would likely have been successful without Penn. It might have even been highly rated. But with him the film becomes transcendent.

Penn's inhabitation of Harvey Milk is something rarely seen, and I'll bet it will be considered one of the classic film performances of history. Yeah, it's that good. It's not an imitation nor a feminization, and though Harvey Milk is someone we will never know on a personal level, Penn's characterization has somehow enabled us a look at a real person from history. In "Milk," Harvey Milk is brought to life.

The film takes place during the last eight years of Milk's life. At the age of 40 he abandons his closeted life in New York and moves to San Francisco's Castro district, a section of the city with a high percentage of homosexuals, and which is close to the tolerant Haight-Ashbury district. There with his lover he opens a camera shop that becomes a haven of sorts for the growing gay community.

As an openly gay man with a strong sense of community, he begins to fight the daily injustices and prejudices. He organizes a gay business association and quickly builds political alliances. Within a year he assumes the unofficial title of The Mayor of Castro Street. When he sees that he has a real chance at getting elected to political office he runs for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, and in 1977 he becomes the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States.

Sadly within a year, both Milk and George Moscone, the city's mayor, are shot and killed by the former city supervisor, Dan White.

Back in 1984 the Oscar winning documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" told what seemed to be the complete story on Milk, the gay movement, and his tragic death. And I suppose to get a just-the-facts picture of Harvey Milk and the gay rights movement, the documentary still stands up as the historical document. So why the need for a dramatic film?

A somewhat fictionalized account of Milk's personal life--especially after the documentary won the Oscar--might seem like overkill. Often a bio-pic will be made because there's a new opportunity to make some cash, or it's nothing more than a filmmakers pet project. Whether or not "Milk" began with lower intentions, the film is blessed with outstanding talent, in front of and behind the camera. It's directed by the outstanding Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting," "To Die For") and has an exceptional supporting cast. Josh Brolin as Dan White. Emile Hirsh as Cleve Jones. Diego Luna as Jack Lira. And James Franco as Scott Smith.

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