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Turn back the clock thirty years, and the issue of gay marriage pales by comparison to the controversy of that woebegone day: who would teach our children.  Those proven to be gay, who were also teachers, along with those who aided them (whatever that meant), could have lost their jobs under California law.  That was the threat of a ballot initiative called Proposition 6 (the stealth in a name), and it almost passed.

The fact that it didn't can, according to a new film, be credited to one man: Harvey Milk.  If you haven't heard of him, that's partly because the project has malingered in Hollywood like a bad smell (Robin Williams was once to play Milk).  It took three men to turn it around: a hot young writer named Dustin Lance Black, a studiously independent director, Gus Van Sant; and a star with muscle, Sean Penn.

"Milk", after all the struggle, is here, and the story of the first openly gay man elected to public office in America (1977) could not be more timely or important.  That the film is also sprightly, optimistic, affectionate, perfectly paced, and as close to a lock for a Best Actor nomination as any this season doesn't hurt, either.

"Milk" doesn't waste time on back-story (a fair criticism of the recent Bush bio-pic "W.") With sagging eyes and an equally wrinkled blue suit, with the last-ditch charm of the desperate, Milk picks up a trick on a subway stairwell, Scott Smith (James Franco).  "I don't date men over forty," Scott says.  "That's okay, because I have fifteen minutes to go," says Milk.

Milk lectures Scott about the danger of cruising the nether regions of San Francisco.  But its Scott's lecture in return that proves life-changing.  "I've never done anything in my life that I'm proud of," Milk says.  Scott, who would become Milk's long-time lover, tells him that it must be time for a new job.  Time for new friends.  Time to come out.

As the film tells it, oversimplifying larger sociological trends, Milk - who became known as the "Mayor of Castro Street" - single-handedly claimed a six block area for gays.  (The Castro is recreated via expert production design and computer graphics, under the scrutiny of Van Sant's jeweler's eye.)  He organized neighborhood gays to back the Teamsters Union in a boycott of Coors beer, and as a thank you, the Teamsters began hiring openly gay drivers.  It was a taste of power that hooked Milk for life.

But the film is adamant: Milk sought and wielded power not for self-aggrandizement, but to fight for his life and those of two in ten others (a placard says).  Penn's oratories are a study in balance, kept from being stentorian by an overarching decency and self-effacement, not to mention a sense of humor about himself.

It's the film's humor, in fact, that elevates the project to a joy.  You want to spend time with the brilliant men on Harvey's team (and one razor-sharp lesbian), all of them overflowing with charisma.  Imagine if the film had dwelt on Dan White (James Brolin), Milk's assassin (and that of Mayor George Moscone).

Instead, "Milk" does not analyze the psychology of a failed man whose rage needed a nemesis; you can get that on C.S.I. any night of the week.  It's enough that Brolin understands his character.  Our own homophobia came welling up, and White was the instrument, that's all.  It's not about martyrdom; it's a celebration of a life.

The film, its eye ever on the ball, glances askew at the rise of the Religious Right as a political movement in America.  It argues that they did their best to abet the denial of a minority its civil rights: gays chased out of their jobs, locked out of equal access to housing, persecuted in the streets, beaten by the police.  That the worst of these offenses have stopped is a measure of how far we've come; that we still argue whether gay rights are civil rights is a measure of how far we have yet to go.

Because of the ongoing efforts of men like Harvey Milk, I hope - if I'm still around and writing in three decades - that I can begin a review with, "Turn back the clock thirty years, and the issue of a gay President pales by comparison to the controversy of that woebegone day: gay marriage."  An agenda here?  You better believe it.

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