‘Milk’ movie review: Sean Penn is Harvey Milk in solid Gus Van Sant biopic

Milk, a look at San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected to office in the United States, certainly isn’t sour though I found it strangely underwhelming. 

Gus Van Sant’s expected artistic flair elevates the picture above the realm of your usual Hollywood biopic, and is likely the director’s finest mainstream effort; still, we’re a long way from Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho

Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay feels paint-by-numbers, and ‘usual Hollywood biopic’ material is too often what we get; Rob Epstein’s 1984 Oscar-winning doc The Times of Harvey Milk is a much more concise and effective version of precisely the same story.

Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk, who begins the film by picking up future partner Scott Smith (James Franco) in a San Francisco subway in 1972; Milk is closeted homosexual who fears he may lose his job if he’s discovered. 

“I think you need a new scene, and new friends,” Smith tells him on his 40th birthday, and so Harvey finds it, and them, by opening a small camera shop in an Irish-Catholic section of the city that becomes a beacon for the local gay community. 

Fully out of the closet, he initially clashes with shopowners but wins the support of local labor unions by rallying the community in a successful boycott of Coors beer. 

Dubbed ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’, he decides to run for city supervisor in 1973. He loses, runs again, and keeps on running till he finally wins in ’77, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the US.

The second half of Milk focuses mostly on the brief tenure as city supervisor, as he clashes with fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), who won his seat with a campaign of eliminating ‘social deviants’ from his neighborhood. 

At the same time, Milk is also key member of the fledgling gay rights movement in the US, and he rallied the local gay community against Anita Bryant, who successfully lobbied for the repeal of a ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in Dade County, Florida. 

Closer to home, California State Senator John Briggs attempts to pass Proposition 6, which would make firing homosexual teachers mandatory in the state (coincidentally, Milk was released in the US around the time of the Proposition 8 ballot in California, which was passed in November, restricting the definition of marriage in the state constitution to opposite-sex couples and causing outrage among the state’s liberal population. How times have changed.)

If you’re familiar with Milk’s story, you know what comes next. Even if you’re not, the film opens with TV footage of Dianne Feinstein announcing to the press that “both Mayor [George] Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed.”

Penn has been nominated for Best Actor and just might win; he’s strong and empathetic here, though never quite convincing as Milk, with come-and-go effeminate mannerisms that often feel forced. His scenes with Diego Luna are particularly…awkward. 

Supporting cast seems to fare better, with particularly convincing and memorable turns by Emile Hirsch and James Franco, along with Josh Brolin as the confused White. Denis O’Hare steals his scenes as Senator Briggs in the film’s best sequence: a pair of public debates between Briggs and Milk, the first in front of a liberal crowd, the second in front of a much more conservative one.

We learn very little about these people, however, most notably Milk himself, as the film confines itself to his life after 40; it’s a rather glossy look at the man that doesn’t provide the depth of Epstein’s documentary.

While Van Sant’s visual flourishes, like a hallway tracking shot following Milk’s killer that feels ripped from the director’s Elephant, add up to a more memorable piece than we might have had under a different director, some of them feel out of place.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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