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Heroes of the Zeroes: Milk

by on July 16, 2010
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Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

Rated R

 Most of his life, Harvey Milk advisedly repressed his homosexuality — a social taboo enforced by implicit insecurity, terror and fear.

Rather than forcing fictions of acceptance at which the world unfortunately hasn’t arrived, Gus van Sant’s 2008 “Milk” felt politically affecting and astute. It chronicled the slow, painful birth of minority representation, and how Milk paid the ultimate price for visibility.

Sean Penn won an Oscar for his buoyant performance as Milk — disinterested either in addressing his persuasion or pursuing public office until moving to San Francisco in 1972, but elated at finding political gaps through which to squeeze.

In 1977, Milk won a seat on the board of city supervisors, and his 11-month tenure within the system became his greatest achievement and tragedy — a time of major gay-rights landmarks and destructive clashes with fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin,  a seemingly harmless Ken doll hiding deep, dangerous insecurity).

The same political machine through which good people can move to achieve something greater than themselves can also swallow them. Although van Sant employs some needless flashiness, he establishes foreboding with dynamic visual context and contrast.

Milk learned his greatest lesson from an early foe: You can’t survive on hope alone. However, without it, politics mean nothing. Once he summoned strength to turn resignation into resolve — and used words to incite and inspire rather than placate or pacify — his vocal protests and timeless message reached cross-sections and not simply his community. In that way, “Milk” succeeded marvelously, much like the man.