top of page
  • Writer's picturePopEntertainment

Milk (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

MILK (2008)

Starring Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Allison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, Lucas Grabeel, Brandon Royce, Zvi Howard Rosenman and Kelvin Yu.

Screenplay by Dustin Lance Black.

Directed by Gus Van Sant.

Distributed by Focus Features. 128 minutes. Rated R.

For those of you that came of age in the 80s or later, the title of this film does not refer to the beverage, but rather to assassinated San Francisco gay activist and politician Harvey Milk.

In 1978 Milk and S.F. mayor George Moscone were slain in City Hall by a disgruntled former political rival – an occurrence that was a huge media story at the time but sadly has been mostly forgotten by history.

While the film does show Milk’s tragic demise, Gus Van Sant’s heartbreaking biography is much more interested in the man’s life and accomplishments.

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to hold public office in the United States.

The film Milk focuses on the last decade of the man’s life, in which he redefines himself from a frustrated closeted Republican New York insurance agent to the spirited, friendly, outspoken – and ruthless when need be – face of the gay movement of the 70s.

In the film, Van Sant captures the vibe and feel (and bad hairdos) of San Francisco in the post-hippie era. In fact, this film could be used as a double feature with David Fincher’s Zodiac to make a wonderful (if just slightly morbid) tribute to the city and the period.

Sean Penn does a stunning job of inhabiting the man – showing his life force, his humor, his intelligence and his flaws. The fact that Harvey Milk was not a perfect man or politician – in fact, he did not so much choose politics as find himself in a position that he could not ignore it.

When Milk, in his early 40s, moved to the supposed gay mecca of The Castro district of San Francisco with his lover, it was simply going to be a rite of passage for the man. He was coming fully out of the closet, freely sharing a relationship with another man (played by James Franco) and opening a little camera shop.

Soon, however, Milk saw that even in a gay-friendly area like the Castro, beatings and discrimination were still common. Originally, he was just standing up for the rights of himself and his friends, but eventually it became a calling.

Milk quickly became known as The Mayor of the Castro, mediating between the gays, government, the unions and police to help the cause of gay rights. After a few false starts, Milk was finally voted onto the board of supervisors, where he showed himself to be a savvy politician and eventually stared down the local senator and even famed anti-gay activist Anita Bryant in getting Proposition 6 – a law for fair work practices – passed.

He even formed an uneasy alliance with Dan White, a conservative church-going supervisor who was overwhelmed by his position and also an outcast in the mostly liberal city council.

Just because his cause was just doesn’t mean that Milk’s tactics always were. In one scene, we are shown Milk have one of his men incite an angry mob to make the politician look better when he defuses the situation. Later, when he pulls a power play on the mayor, he is only partially good-naturedly compared to Boss Tweed and Richard Daley.

Eventually he had to break his alliance with White – a politically necessary move – but that set in motion a series of events which led to White killing Milk and Mayor Moscone. The killer blamed it on his junk food lifestyle, a tactic which has been mockingly derided as “The Twinkie Defense” ever since.

Milk is a return to more mainstream filmmaking by Van Sant. After making such respected films as Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For and Good Will Hunting (as well as such notorious flops as Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho), Van Sant has spent the last few years toiling on experimental indie films like Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park and Gerry.

Milk is an amazing return to popular filmmaking by Van Sant – and an obvious Oscar buzz candidate.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008 All rights reserved. Posted: November 26, 2008.


bottom of page