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Milk: Deeply Moving, Difficult, and Worthwhile

"I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living." — Harvey Milk

The story of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk had a huge impact on me a few years ago when I first watched the Oscar-winning documentary about him, The Times of Harvey Milk. His is truly a stranger-than-fiction tale and is so full of inspiration, absurdity, and absolute heartache that it's somewhat surprising it has taken this long to create a feature-length dramatization of his life and death. I respect director Gus Van Sant's decision to memorialize and honor Harvey Milk with his movie Milk, and to my great relief, Van Sant and his exceptional ensemble cast have done Milk's story justice.

Milk picks up Harvey Milk's life when Milk (Sean Penn) meets one of the great loves of his life, Scott Smith (portrayed by James Franco) and decides to move from New York City to San Francisco. There, the two open a camera store in the heart of the Castro, a neighborhood with a rapidly growing gay population, and there Milk begins his life as a leader of the gay rights movement in the 1970s. After trying and failing twice, he is finally elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977, largely due to the support of the gay community. For the first time, it becomes apparent that the gay community could be a powerful one, and Milk often emphasizes this during his time in city hall. As the country's first openly gay man to be elected to public office, Milk brings the gay rights movement to the city's attention as much as possible, earning him admiration and support along with many enemies — including his ultimate enemy, fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). For more about this and my thoughts on it all,


Dan White is a good ol' Christian boy who feels threatened by and resentful of Harvey Milk's success. Josh Brolin, who is fast becoming one of the most fascinating actors in Hollywood, simply morphs into this insecure and fearful man who gradually becomes unhinged. His fate and that of Harvey Milk are tragically linked in history forever, and frankly, it's disturbing to see Dan White brought to life on screen, especially after seeing all the actual footage of him in the documentary.

The rest of the cast is equally remarkable: Franco makes for a loving, sympathetic Smith, and Emile Hirsch is captivating as Milk's young activist protégé Cleve Jones. Allison Pill is always an undeniably strong presence on screen and her depiction of Milk's sole female team member, Anne Kronenberg, is no different. Diego Luna plays one of Milk's lovers, Jack Lira, with equal parts bright beauty and troubling instability. Most of all, Penn's portrayal of this charismatic, resilient, and good-humored pioneer will surely earn him some well-deserved accolades and awards.

This project is remarkably ambitious. There are so many intersecting aspects of Milk's career, activism, and personal life, it's enough to make one's head spin. Add to this Van Sant's decision to incorporate actual footage from the '70s into his dramatized story, and you've got yourself a crazy, giant puzzle to put together. But the actual footage is crucial in this case, consistently reminding us that though this seems like fiction at times — especially now, to modern audiences — this is a true story.

Interestingly, one "character" (so to speak), the outspoken fundamentalist Christian singer Anita Bryant, is not played by any actress (though at first glance I thought for sure it was Marcia Gay Harden). Instead, her entire part in Milk's story is shown through real footage — which only makes her behavior that much more staggering. This directorial choice seamlessly blends the reality of Harvey Milk's actual life with the staging of his life by the director and cast. Overall, I can’t express enough how much I applaud and admire Van Sant’s accomplishment here. It's a complicated and deeply emotional story, and the entire production — Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, the whole cast — carried a tremendous responsibility to get this thing right and the result is a dignified homage.

I highly recommend watching the documentary first, as there was an effervescence and a beautiful light to the real Harvey Milk that no actor, not even the great Sean Penn, can capture. Both the documentary and this new film may leave you speechless and/or weepy. But his is a worthwhile story to tell and if this grand-scale production with heavy-hitting actors and a talented director gets his story out there, all the better.

Photos courtesy of Focus Features

Join The Conversation
ebgirl ebgirl 8 years
This was, in my opinion, one of the best films of 2008. The acting is incredible, especially Sean Penn and Josh Brolin (who I think deserves more credit than he usually gets). The film is also very relevant to current issues, so it's definitely worth seeing.
tchan01 tchan01 8 years
Completely agree with MissMariso.
MissMarisol MissMarisol 8 years
I saw it this past weekend and I really enjoyed it. I thought it was heartwarming and touching. Sean Penn was excellent and so was the rest of the cast. What did sadden me is that some of the negative feelings expressed in the movie are still alive today. You would think that after 30 years (Milk died in 1978) that people's acceptance of homosexuality would be something that wasn't an issue anymore.
californiagirlx7 californiagirlx7 8 years
This movie looks really good, but very tragic. I don't know if I could sit through it in theaters.
mrskrismendoza mrskrismendoza 8 years
I am very anxious/excited to see this film.
eastcoastgirl eastcoastgirl 8 years
Sean is great and the movie was really an important one to make.
kristints kristints 8 years
Oh, I'm so excited to see this film, I think Sean Penn is perfect for this role! I love Harvey's quotes, he was an incredible man. "Hope will never be silent" - Harvey Milk
ilanac13 ilanac13 8 years
ever since i heard that this movie was being made and i heard about the cast etc...i knew that there was going to be something impressive about it. then i saw the trailers for it and i was drawn in even more. i hope that i get to see it soon since it's really up there
laceykk23 laceykk23 8 years
im looking forward to this as well. i saw the documentry and loved it. and i have heard nothing but rave reviews for the movie and not to mention sean penn's performance. im really hoping that it will come down to SC next week but somewhere in the back of my mind i dont think i will be able to see this until it comes out on dvd, oh well it figures down here. either way i cant wait to see this!! thanks for the review.
JaeB JaeB 8 years
Thank you for the detailed review. I remember seeing the documentary...I'm always a little iffy about historical movies, whether they will add to or detract from my understanding of the real event, and how respectful they are of it, but this sounds like it was done right. I'm looking forward to seeing it, and perhaps learning from it.
Candice80 Candice80 8 years
Any movie with Sean Penn is worth watching! I'm certainly looking forward to seeing this movie! Thanks for posting the review!
fashion4ward fashion4ward 8 years
Oh, I'm so glad you loved it, Buzz! I've said this so many times before, but I've been waiting for this for over a year and am sooo excited to see it. Sadly, it doesn't open in my stupid little area until next Friday (hopefully), but I held myself over by reading the script and listening to the score online.
Renees3 Renees3 8 years
i really really really wish this was playing somewhere nearby. I doubt it'll ever come here. bummer
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