Considering the paucity of my movie going behavior lately, nevertheless I knew that I would have to see the new Gus van Sant film, Milk, starring Sean Penn as the guy who goes from a closeted gay in New York City to the first openly gay politician in San Francisco within a decade. Part of the appeal of going for me was my love for the Bay Area. Moreover, and I did not know this until fairly recently, Harvey went to school at what is now UAlbany, the same institution where I attended library school, and got into a little trouble.

So, go I did with my wife this past Sunday to Albany’s Spectrum Theatre after having lunch at Justin’s. Date night afternoon! Initially, my rather deep knowledge of some of the events portrayed in the movie was a bit of a hindrance to my enjoyment. It was as though I’m watching Sean Penn in a biopic. Oh, look, there’s James Franco as his lover! But there’s a point for me – a specific moment having to do with an election – where Penn stopped being the actor and became Harvey Milk.

I’m finding it difficult to describe the film more fully. I recall that Roger Ebert got chastised in some quarters for revealing information that, I would agree, was public knowledge. The headline facts are established early via archival footage of Diane Feinstein, now a U.S. Senator. That information made me appreciate more the structure of the movie, with Milk dictating notes on a recording device amidst flashbacks.

This was a well-reviewed film (92% on the Tomatometer, 91% among top critics.) One review in particular irritated me: “The exceptional The Times of Harvey Milk won the Oscar for Best Documentary 24 years ago…. Yet, all this time later… Hollywood wants us to applaud its courage for finally–finally–telling this story?” Perhaps true, but the review of the film itself was actually rather positive, yet listed as “rotten”.

There was quite a bit of archival footage, and I did something at this film I don’t recall ever doing before; I hissed when someone appeared on the screen as though it were Snidely Whiplash. Anita Bryant was spewing her hate in the name of “Christian love”; I boycotted orange juice for years because of her.

But this is no historical relic. Indeed, the fight over California’s Prop 6 in the mid-1970s, which would have banned gay teachers, and 2008’s Prop 8, which would ban gay marriage, made the film seem more relevant than it might have. Jimmy Carter and even Ronald Reagan opposed Prop 6, BTW.

I should note a couple of the many fine performances. Emile Hirsch, who was directed by Sean Penn in the Penn-penned Into the Wild plays organizer Cleve Jones. Josh Brolin, who recently played Bush 43 in W, is Milk’s more conservative colleague Dan White.

It was a movie with a message, but I did not find it preachy. At the end of this film, some people, including me, applauded it. In some ways, I/they were applauding the remarkable evolution and life of Harvey Milk.

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