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November 29th, 2008
08:35 AM ET

The man who blew up America's closets

Andrew O’Hehir
Salon.com

For me and for anybody else who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone on Nov. 27, 1978, came as the second half of a traumatic double whammy - a regionally and culturally specific version of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. As I remember it, I was standing in the hallway outside the journalism office at Berkeley High School, talking to a couple of friends on the paper. (I was the editor.) We may well have been talking about stories we were working on in the aftermath of the so-called Jonestown massacre, the mass murder-suicide of more than 900 people, including quite a few with connections to our city and our school, that had happened just nine days earlier in the Guyanese jungle.

Someone came into the hall and told us what had just happened a few miles away, on the other side of the bay. A black-and-white TV was dragged out of the closet, plugged in and kicked around for a while until we could find a station. One of my friends took out a pencil and wrote on the wall: "11/27/78: Milk and Moscone just GOT SHOT!!" I guess he was blogging without knowing it. That scribble stayed there unmolested until after we graduated.

Thirty years later, almost to the day, and after a bewildering number of fits and starts with various directors and actors, the story of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk - a crucial strand, but not the only strand, in that chaotic autumn of 1978 - reaches us as a major feature film, with Sean Penn in the lead role and Gus Van Sant behind the camera. There are an awful lot of things to say about "Milk," and it's a film that, for anyone who knows the history of these events, will bump into a bunch of questions it isn't remotely equipped to answer.

"Milk" was never going to be just another movie, and in a season marked by the simultaneous election of our first black president and the enactment of a gay-marriage ban in California, it's in danger of becoming primarily a symbol or a statement, and not a movie at all. (For instance, there is an announced boycott of Cinemark theaters showing the film, because of the chain owner's purported anti-gay politics.) But let's say the simplest things first: This is an affectionately crafted, celebratory biopic about a sweet, shrewd, hard-assed, one-of-a-kind historical figure. And they can just FedEx the Oscar to Sean Penn's house right now, so that we don't have to listen to his acceptance speech.

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Filed under: Andrew O'Hehir • Film