The true story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man to be voted into major public office in America in 1977, when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In 1970 Milk moves from New York to San Francisco with lover Scott Smith (James Franco) to start a new life, but they are surrounded by sexual discrimination. With the support of Smith and young activists like Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), he plunges into the choppy waters of politics. It is a slow and rocky start and he and Smith separate. Milk meets his new lover Jack Lira (Diego Luna) before being elected supervisor for the newly zoned District 5. His fight against Proposition 6, a proposed statewide referendum to fire gay schoolteachers, puts him into direct conflict with another newly elected supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin), with tragic consequences.
Review by Louise Keller:
Sean Penn's stunning performance as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man voted into US public office is the first reason to see this potent and involving film. Penn's subtly gay mannerisms are entirely convincing in this portrayal of a softly spoken, courageous man who fought energetically to give hope to all minority groups for a better tomorrow. Another reason to see Gus Van Sant's gritty film is that it is a fascinating social commentary of the times. It has the authenticity of a bio-pic but tells Milk's story at a concentrated emotional pitch. It starts with a new relationship and as we begin to understand this 40 year old's psyche, we partake in his journey to try to do something worthwhile. Van Sant handles the material with sincerity and grace as we become immersed in a time that was far from liberal and minorities cried out for protection against persecution.
It is on the eve of his 40th birthday that Penn's Milk meets and none too subtly picks up James Franco's Scott Smith in a New York subway. Their connection is immediate and there's an endearing innocence as Milk suggests they run away together. But San Francisco, where they set up a camera shop, proves to be highly discriminatory of their sexual orientation and Milk is motivated to stand for public office where he believes he can make a difference. 'It's not just about winning,' he says as he explains he is not a candidate but part of a movement.
We are there during the marches, the rallies and the demonstrations. There are defeats and then there is a historic success. The film's main tension comes from the relationship between Milk and Josh Brolin's tormented fellow city Supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin) whose dark secret hides deep in his eyes. Brolin is superb, subtly filling the screen with his inner conflict as his character tussles with his own conscience.
The casting and performances are all first class and Diego Luna is especially endearing as Jack Lira, the neurotic, paranoid lover who cannot help but place impossible emotional demands. While the film is a tribute to the political activist Harvey Milk and his achievements, it is also a human story about a man who loves opera and birthday cake. It is a film for anyone who is interested in the human condition - of any sexual orientation. It's good too, to see Van Sant at the helm of a film that takes him away from the likes of Last Days, Gerry and Elephant, which did not offer a palette large-enough for his talents.
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CAST: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Diego Luna
PRODUCER: Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, Michael London
DIRECTOR: Gus Van Sant
SCRIPT: Dustin Lance Black
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Harris Savides
EDITOR: Elliot Graham
MUSIC: Danny Elfman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Bill Groom
RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 29, 2008