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'Milk' Explores True Story of Openly Gay American Politician


Sean Penn is winning rave reviews and could add another Best Actor Oscar to his awards shelf for his performance in the new film by director Gus Van Sant based on the true story of the first openly gay man elected to major public office in the United States. Alan Silverman Alan Silverman has this look at Milk.

When Harvey Milk moved from his native New York to San Francisco in the early 1970's, the west coast city had not yet become the center of American homosexual culture and activism. Starting with friends and neighbors who gathered in his camera shop on Castro Street, the affable, energetic Milk became a community organizer, battled discrimination against his fellow homosexuals and in 1977, after several failed attempts, won election to the city's governing body, the Board of Supervisors.

Dan White was elected supervisor from a district whose residents were alarmed by the growing visibility …and political power …of the gay community energized by Harvey Milk.

Before the end of their first year in office Dan White came to city hall with a pistol and killed Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone. The night of the murders 30,000 people silently marched through San Francisco in a spontaneous candlelight vigil in memory of the slain political activist.

Director Gus Van Sant says the film is about the man who could inspire that kind of admiration.

"To me the overall theme is a portrait of a grassroots political organization that affects change in its community and that the small guy can do it," he says. "He can get somewhere and affect change and that you can do it."

Van Sant blends news film of actual events with detailed recreations; and Sean Penn says he had plenty of source material, including a 1984 Oscar-winning documentary, to draw on for creating his version of Milk.

"The documentary and additional archival footage was very helpful," explains Penn. "With that sort of thing the best way you can use it is to watch it a lot, the same way you would play music all day in the background and not necessarily be thinking about it, which is why I kept it on all the time. Over a period of time, if you listen carefully, you can hear the music of that and you kind of dance with it. It was clear in terms of …for the lack of a better term …the character choice that the most exciting version of Harvey Milk to me was Harvey Milk. The guy is electric."

Josh Brolin co-stars as Dan White and says he wanted to show the guy who pulls the trigger as more than just the 'bad guy' of the story.

"But he is the guy who pulled the trigger so he ultimately is the bad guy in this situation," Brolin explains. "The more interesting thing [to me] is how did this guy become what he became. How did he get to the point where he actually made the decision that it was the only tangible thing that he could resort to …the only garnering back of any power? Feeling as though he had lost everything: his legacy, his standing with his family and his community …it was all gone. So that is the only thing he felt like he could do. It's very sad, but I want to explore that."

James Franco plays Harvey Milk's longtime lover Scott Smith and says through that relationship the film shows that Milk was more than just the political activist.

"This movie could have been all politics, just showing his political career; but instead you get to really see Harvey's personal life [and] what he was like as a man as well as a politician," Franco says. "I think the main function of my role and our relationship in the movie is to really ground it emotionally and round out the character of Milk."

Milk was shot on location in San Francisco and director Van Sant went so far as to get the actual store where Harvey Milk had his Castro Street camera shop 35 years ago.

"At times, because it is a set, you sort of think of it as a set; but every now and then you reminded yourself that, wow, this is actually the view out the window," he says.

Milk also features Emile Hirsch as longtime political organizer Cleve Jones and Alison Pill is campaign manager Anne Kronenberg; the real people they play were among many of Harvey Milk's colleagues and co-workers who served as technical advisors on the film.

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