Penn the Great Pretender ; Sean Penn Miraculously Transforms Himself into San Francisco's Gay Activist Harvey Milk and Turns in a Winning Performance

By Charlotte O'sullivan | The Evening Standard (London, England), January 22, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Penn the Great Pretender ; Sean Penn Miraculously Transforms Himself into San Francisco's Gay Activist Harvey Milk and Turns in a Winning Performance


Charlotte O'sullivan, The Evening Standard (London, England)


MILK Cert 15, 128mins .. .. .. .. ...

IT'S OFFICIAL: Sean Penn is the new Robert De Niro. As far back as Taps in 1981, he had the ugly beauty and psychotic verve; what he's developed in the past few years is an eye for a great script. As biopics go, this portrait of gay activist Harvey Milk isn't quite up there with, say, Raging Bull. Still, it is smart, sexy and very funny. It also makes Penn look wonderful and he returns the favour.

What most people know about Milk is that he was the first openly gay politician in America and that he was shot dead in 1978. Gus Van Sant's film insists we get to know him better and, tweaking the facts only slightly, uses his love affair with a cute young hippie called Scottie (talented teen heart-throb James Franco) to reel us in.

In between scenes showing Milk dictating a last will and testament (Milk knew his actions would make him a target for the murderously "insecure") we watch as the straitlaced, 39-year-old Harvey picks up Scottie in a New York subway.

The pair are strongly attracted to each other, and the mood is infectious.

It's become trendy, since Brokeback Mountain, for heterosexuals to swoon over same-sex kisses but I've not felt as aroused by a screen couple since Daniel Day-Lewis reached for Gordon Warnecke in My Beautiful Laundrette..

Anyhow, the two move to San Francisco, where Harvey starts smoking dope, opens a camera shop and becomes the self-proclaimed Mayor of Castro Street, defending the city's gays from the brutal police force and forging links with trade unionists, blacks, Latinos and "seniors".

He's energetic, witty and what you might call an armchair lech (he can resist, but not resist complimenting, sassy boys in tight trousers). He runs for office several times and his workaholic ways drive him and Scottie apart.

He assembles a committed if somewhat cliquey team; acquires a new Latino lover, with whom he is careless and borderline racist; finally becomes a supervisor; successfully takes on figures of the religious Right who want to oust gay teachers from their jobs; encourages California's gays to "out" themselves and, having previously tolerated oddball, conservative colleague Dan White (brilliantly played by Josh Brolin), turns on him.

Throughout it all, the loose-limbed "connection" between him and Scottie remains unbroken.

It seems apt, given Milk's love of openness ("Privacy is the enemy!

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