Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco City board of Supervisors in 1977, making him the first openly gay person to hold a major elected office. If his story stopped there, it would have been remarkable enough. But everything about Milk’s life was extraordinary, up to and beyond his death. In fact, the trial of his assassin, fellow San Francisco city supervisor, Dan White, who claimed that too much sugar from a junk food diet drove him temporarily insane, threatened to overshadow the accomplishments of Harvey Milk.

To Gus Van Sant’s credit, the only mention of the “twinkie defense” is in the “where are they now” section at the end of the film. It would have been an extremely cheap laugh to show Dan White scarfing down twinkies, while watching Milk give interviews on the local news. But director Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black make this Harvey Milk’s story. It is the only choice.

Harvey Milk spent the first forty years of his life in New York and in the closet. He came to an understanding of his sexuality during the repressive atmosphere that led to the Stonewall riots. Anyone who came out at that time risked losing his/her job and quite possibly getting arrested. After his fortieth birthday Milk, played by Sean Penn, and his boyfriend Scott Smith decide to move to San Francisco. Initially they encounter the same hostility that they faced in New York, but this time Harvey is out and he isn’t going back in. He choses instead to fight back, to organize the gay citizens of the Castro district. These are his first steps toward elected office and his other accomplishments. Chief among those is his defeat of an initiative in California to fire gay teachers if they are found and those who support them. This was part of a nationwide trend among local governments at the time. It was led by former singer Anita Bryant. The proposition in California stopped the movement’s momentum.

Milk may well be Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece. Just before he died, Milk, who knew there was a good chance he’d be killed, made a cassette recording of his thoughts about the events of his life. Van Sant uses the device of Milk sitting at his kitchen table recording these tapes to go over the major accomplishments of his life. This gives the director the freedom to speed through the process of political activity and gloss over the major historical events to get to the inner thoughts and motivations of his subject.

This film may well be Sean Penn’s greatest performance also. Harvey Milk was a very effeminate man and not in a graceful way.  The way Penn plays him, he is awkward and his actions are self conscious. In the hands of a less skilled actor, this could have been a horrific stereotype but Penn nails it. Even physically, he seems smaller, with a sunken chest and skinny arms. Compare that to the aggressive characters he usually plays. It is an astounding transformation. Most of all, he captures Milk’s fierce intelligence. Here was a man who saw that there was a way to combat bigotry, not through violent confrontation but through communication, finding common ground, in other words, politics. He isn’t above manipulating a situation or going back on a deal if it suits him. But he’s always able to see the final goal. Sean Penn’s performance is breathtaking to watch.

Other performances stand out as well. James Franco does a terrific job as Scott Smith, Milk’s boyfriend, who doesn’t want to share him with the citizens of the Castro. Emile Hirsch is abrasive and enthusiastic as Cleve Jones, a young kid who journeys from jadeness to passion for the cause as Milk’s protege. Also Josh Brolin turns in another fine performance as Dan White, especially since there is nothing in the script to indicate why he does what he does other than the stress of raising a family on the inadequate pay of a city supervisor and some speculation on Milk’s part that he is a deeply closeted gay, which may have been why Milk keeps reaching out to him.

Milk is an inspiring film about an inspiring figure.


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