Field conditions: Cedar Lee theater, 2 p.m. Saturday show. Small theater, well filled, but still chilly. Trailers: "Che, "I've Loved You For So Long," "The Wrestler."
The more I think about "Milk," the more I admire it. I've read about Harvey Milk before, and seen the sterling documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" (which by the way, is available for viewing on Hulu.com, although with commercials), and the impressive TV-movie "Execution of Justice," with Tim Daly as Dan White and Peter Coyote as Milk. But even with a well-documented story, even with an inevitable outcome, "Milk" is a worthy contender for the best-picture Oscar, and Sean Penn more than deserving of a best-actor nomination.
For those of you tuning in late, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to hold electoral office in the U.S., when he was elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors in the late '70s. Even before that, he had been an activist on gay issues, but his election gave him a national profile and the potential for even more influence. Unfortunately, he and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed in 1978 by Dan White, another SF supervisor. Still, Milk to this day remains an iconic figure, a representative of both the potential of the gay-rights movement and the terrible potential consequences of speaking out.
That basic material could have been overdone, overwrought and overacted in the interest of making it more dramatic; it could also have dialed down Milk's gayness or his flaws, in order to make the movie more palatable to some viewers.
"Milk" does seem to shy away from some issues, such as how Milk dealt with Dianne Feinstein, a San Francisco politician in the '70s and now the senior U.S. senator from California.
But it is direct in presenting Milk as a gay man. His romantic life is part of his story. And Penn's vocals are more pronounced in a stereotypically gay way than are recordings I have heard of the real-life Milk.
Nor does it pretend that Milk was a man without flaws. He was conniving at times. His dealings with White are open to criticism (although White's ultimate act is, of course, inexcusable). He could be inflexible, though usually in good cause, patronizing and a bit arrogant. In a scene shortly before Milk and Moscone are shot, Milk is so abrasively flexing his political muscle that Moscone compares him to Boss Tweed.
But if Milk at times is less than admirable, his overall approach to life and to the gay movement is heroic. The movie notes that he kept pounding on the door even after several attempts to win elective office, that he took on seemingly unwinnable causes (such as opposing an Anita Bryant-backed anti-gay measure in California) because it had to be done. His death, even though you know it is coming, will make you ache -- not only because of what he has done, but because of the obvious impact he has had on people, those he knew and those who only knew of him.
Penn is terrific in the film, as are supporting players like James Franco, as Milk's lover. Josh Brolin, who plays Dan White, has also been getting some awards notice, and he's good, but he has been better in some other performances. Direction and script are solid, avoiding excessive dramatizing because the story is so strong -- as a personal tale and as a political history -- without excess. I was wiping away more than one tear as the movie ended, and I was not the only one in the theater to do so.