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His life changed history. His courage changed lives. Academy Award winner Sean Penn stars in this stirring celebration of Harvey Milk, a true man of the people. Based on the inspiring true story of the first openly gay man elected to major public office, this compelling film follows Milk’s powerful journey to inspire hope for equal rights during one of the least tolerant times in our nation’s history. With a stunning all-star cast, including Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsh, Diego Luna and James Franco, it’s the emotionally charged story that was proclaimed the Winner of The New York Film Critics Circle Best Picture Award!
When a famous person, like the nation's first openly gay male city supervisor, inspires an acclaimed book (The Mayor of Castro Street) and Oscar-winning documentary (The Times of Harvey Milk), a biopic can seem superfluous at best. Taking over from Oliver Stone and Bryan Singer, Gus Van Sant, whose previous picture was the more experimental Paranoid Park, directs with such grace, he renders the concern moot. Unlike Randy Shilts' biography, which begins at the beginning, Dustin Lance Black's script starts in 1972, just as Milk (Sean Penn, in a finely-wrought performance) and his boyfriend, Scott (James Franco, equally good), move from New York to San Francisco. Milk opens a camera shop on the Castro that becomes a safe haven for victims of discrimination, convincing him to enter politics. With each race he runs, Harvey's relationship with Scott unravels further. Finally, he wins, and the real battle begins as Milk takes on Proposition 6, which denies equal rights to homosexuals. He does what he can to rally politicians, like George Moscone (Victor Garber) and Dan White (Josh Brolin). While the mayor is willing, the conservative board member has reservations, and after Milk fails to back one of White’s pet projects, the die is cast, leading to the murder of two beloved figures. If Van Sant’s film captures Harvey in all his complexities (he was, for instance, a very funny man), Milk also serves as an enticement to grass-roots activism, showing how one regular guy elevated everyone around him, notably Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), the ex-street hustler who created the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial. Released in the wake of Proposition 8, California’s anti-gay marriage amendment, Milk is inspirational in the best way: one person can and did make a difference, but the struggle is far from over. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
Get to Know the Cast From Milk
Sean Penn (Harvey Milk)
Josh Brolin (Dan White)
James Franco (Scott Smith)
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Stills from Milk (Click for larger image)
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Harvey Milk was my supervisor and we still miss him and Mayor Moscone. He was a true pioneer. Milk came to SF about the same time I did and lived in the same neighborhood. There is something special about a place where people can be free to find themselves and be themselves without so much of the restraints of the places they came from.
Harvey Milk, a Long Island San Franciscan transplant, camera store owner, and many time political candidate, would become for gay and lesbian people what other inspirational leaders would become for their causes. He starts out as many do as they enter the political arena, getting involved in local politics, due to an overwhelming need to create a better life for himself, his partner Scott, and his friends. Soon, politics would consume him and his relationships, and become a driving force as other driving forces would work to try to defeat him. Once getting to the Board of Supervisors, Harvey spent eleven months trying to work for his constituents and work to defeat a hideous ballot proposition before being assassinated.
Van Sant's Milk is mostly a docudrama, relying heavily on recounting Harvey's story, including an inside look at his relationships. The movie never wanders over into glorifying Milk into a superficial hero, but paints a more honest portrait. Milk mistakes hard decisions, mistakes, and also celebrates his successes and achievements. Those familiar with The Times of Harvey Milk 1984 will recognize immediately some missing names (Sally Gearhart comes to mind), but there is a complicit understanding that biopics needs to change/alter some details to compress what could easily be a four hour movie. Van Sant's direction is spot on, and invisible.
However, what transforms this movie is clearly Sean Penn's amazing, amazing performance. Okay, I'll be the first one to admit that I wasn't sure that Penn could pull off this role. Within the first two minutes of the film, I changed my mind. Heck, just watching the trailer, I changed my mind. Penn transforms himself, totally, and becomes Milk. He doesn't ever truly look like him, but through his voice, mannerisms, he projects Milk in a way I don't think any other actor could ever pull off. Just watch the scene when proposition six is surprisingly defeated, and the campaign headquarters erupts; Penn engaging in a joyful scream communicates such elation is totally Milk, and I literally forgot, for those few moments, that I was watching a movie. Say hello to another Oscar, Mr. Penn. You certainly earned it.
Those who are gay come with a sense of appreciation and awe of Harvey's story. Those who are straight may learn a sense of the struggle that differentness brings to those in this country who do not fit into to the traditional mode. As Milk ends, and the miles long candlelight procession winds it's way through the streets of San Francisco, the words of a politician who ran on hope and was killed for it echo the current election and another politician who ran on hope. It's a poetic sense of continuity; those of us who work to end bigotry and intolerance end up benefiting all. Perhaps Van Sant started Milk with scenes of bar arrests to show us our history, but also, to show us just how far we've come.