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Milk (2008)

His life changed history. His courage changed lives.

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 128 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

Seeing Milk, I believe, might be a little different for me, as a California resident, than for the rest of the world. Having just come through the November election where Proposition 8 was passed, putting into place a state Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, the “gays will infiltrate your schools” arguments depicted here on Proposition 6 are eerily similar. But this is more than just a movie documenting a piece of gay history, and it’s best when it focuses on its people, not just its events.

On the eve of his fortieth birthday, New Yorker Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) picks up Scott Smith (James Franco), who tells him he needs a “new scene.” So, off they go to San Francisco, and soon, Harvey is leading a revolution to legitimize the gay-populated Castro Street as a viable business community. His aspirations grow, however, and it isn’t long before Harvey sets his sights on political office. Three tries later, Harvey Milk finds himself on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as the country’s first openly gay man elected to serve in public office—and at the volatile center of the gay rights movement.

Milk is what happens when everything goes right on a movie. The casting is exact, and the look and feel are spot-on authentic. The best thing about the film, though, is that even though it’s all about real events and real people, it still feels like a very well-written piece of fiction—not to say it feels unrealistic, it’s more to say that the characters are more developed and intriguing than in most biopics. Even with the history lesson we get on the gay rights movement, it’s also a damn good story. At the forefront of that story, of course, is Penn. I can’t imagine anyone else being Harvey, and Penn’s version of this real-life man is transformational. But there’s a lot of praise to go around—Franco is understated and strong as Scott Smith, more the grown-up in their relationship than the older Milk, and Josh Brolin has been getting well-deserved kudos for his off-kilter-trying-to-be-normal Dan White (and seriously, is Josh Brolin everywhere now?). Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Alison Pill—all in roles that could’ve gone over the top, these three supporters stand out among their bigger named co-stars. Credit goes also to Van Sant, who keeps the dramatics simmering while presenting an uplifting look into a time in our recent history that echoes a whole lot of current upheaval while never veering into being preachy or sentimental.

It's Got: A superior cast, a lesson in civil rights, scary footage of Anita Bryant.

It Needs: To be seen.


Milk is, undoubtedly a must-see if you’re looking for a lesson in the gay rights movement, but more importantly, it’s a beautifully crafted film about a man we should know more about.