Milk (2008)

"My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you!" This quote may not mean anything to most of us today, but when spoken by Harvey Milk himself in 1970s San Francisco, this was a battle cry that meant hope for homosexuals everywhere. To this day, the issue of homosexuality has been prevalent in our society. Great strides have been made to settle the dispute, but none have birthed a final conclusion. Intolerance of homosexuals became a past time for some Americans, and Harvey Milk was the man looking to find those people another hobby.

Milk is the true story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man elected to a public office. Forced out of New York because of his inability to live his lifestyle freely, Harvey took to the road with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) in search of a haven for homosexuals. The two arrived in San Francisco only to discover just as much prejudice crawling through the city as anywhere else. Determined to help the world realize that all men are created equal, Harvey runs for office multiple times but comes out on the losing end. Despite losing Scott because of the chaos of politics, he kept pursuing office and eventually won a seat as City Supervisor in 1977. Contending with the views of fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), Harvey now had to face a huge threat that endangered the jobs of millions of homosexuals: Proposition 6. Led by State Senator John Briggs, Proposition 6 called for all homosexual teachers at public schools to be fired in order to prevent them from teaching their students to be gay. This absolutely absurd claim sparked huge uproar in the gay community, specifically from Harvey Milk. Chronicling his life from his move to San Francisco to his murder (not a spoiler, as both his death and murderer are revealed about 4 minutes into the film), Milk is a fantastic film that teaches us about the life and teachings of this pioneer in history.

It is almost impossible to determine where one should begin to discuss Milk. With such flawless execution in every aspect of the film, it seems unfair to start one without talking about the other. Writer Dustin Lance Black, who received an Academy Award for his Best Original Screenplay, did a terrific job of not simply stating facts about Harvey Milk's life but telling a story that dug emotions from the deepest trench of my soul. To admit something about myself for a moment, I am not exactly what you would consider a "sympathizer" of the homosexual lifestyle. However, Black's perfect blend of realistic drama and occasional humor (Dan White: Can two men reproduce? Harvey Milk: No, but God knows we keep trying!) made me connect with each and every character and start to think of things in a new light. Director Gus Van Sant complimented Black's writing beautifully with an eloquent style that was not in the least bit showy. Subtle and simple camerawork did not fancify the story but simply enabled it to be told in a direct matter for the purpose of entertainment and enlightenment. Van Sant, whose films have been hit and miss (a shot for shot remake of Psycho counts as not just a miss, but a complete and utter misfire that made Alfred Hitchcock weep in his grave), is at his creative best here by being as least creative as possible.

The piece de resistance of Milk is the one who not only brought the words, but the man, to life. I am referring to Sean Penn, who won his second Academy Award for Best Leading Actor for this role. My initial reaction to Penn winning this award was one of disbelief and anger, because although I had not seen the film yet, I had heavy doubts that he could have been much better than Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Having seen Milk, I can say both men were equally worthy of winning the award, and the reason it was granted to Penn was probably due to the fact that Hollywood is a liberal place. This does not take merit away from Penn's performance, which was nothing short of outstanding. His contribution mixed with Van Sant and Black brought the era to life and put me right in the center of the action. What is perhaps most surprising about Milk is that there were a number of supporting performances that were just as praise-worthy as Penn's. Josh Brolin delivered a very powerful performance as Harvey Milk's executioner Dan White, earning him an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. White, a man bent on protecting the sancitity of traditional family life, perhaps even confused about his own sexuality according to Milk, feels his world begin to unfurl as he starts losing support and he watches Milk start to gain some. His morals and ethics are shook to the core, and Brolin displays them easily for us to see. But to just give Brolin a nomination for Supporting Actor seems unfair to Emile Hirsch and James Franco, who both gave exceptional performances. As Harvey Milk's close political advisor and fellow gay activist Cleve Jones, Hirsch encapsulates the role and helps keep the movie afloat in scenes that in other hands would have sunk. The most unexpected performance of Milk was that of James Franco, whom I have never seen in a good dramatic role. I was shocked to find that while watching the film I had completely forgotten it was Franco and I just felt like I was watching Harvey Milk and Scott Smith. Perhaps there is a future for him in serious films after all.

Admittedly, my general views on homosexuality have not changed much since watching Milk, but I have gained a better understanding of the situation. The very idea that this film resonated with me at all should give you an idea of how powerful it's message was. One can only wonder that if this film was released a few weeks earlier, would the recent Proposition 8 have passed in California? Something tells me that if everybody watched this film, whether the ideas stuck or not, the immediate reaction would have been to vote "No". This is all a relative thought, however. If you are a strict, God-fearing person, this movie will not affect you at all probably. But if you are like me and your feelings about homosexuality come from your own mind rather than a book, you may be more inclinded to succumb to the bias of Milk.

Clocking in at just over 2 hours, I was never bored with Milk and felt that I could have watched it again immediately afterward. To those of you who are concerned about watching men kissing other men, I assure you that at no point does the film become uncomfortable to watch, as long as you have a mature mind about you. Whether you watch Milk as a historical text or a vessel of entertainment, you are guaranteed a terrific experience from a truly brilliant movie. My rating (10/10)


  1. I find it rather strange that the person who killed Harvey Milk is Dan White. People like him bring shame and dishonor on my great name.

  2. Your comments about Milk are thoughtful and well expressed. Would its release earlier have affected the outcome of Prop. 8? Hard to say. It so happens that my just-released biographical novel, Broken Saint, is a fictionalized account of the life of a gay man I knew for about forty year, and about the internal and external stuggles he endured - exascerbated by his bipolarism. Anyway, you may find it worth a look. It is available at, www., and elsewhere.


    Mark Zamen, author


Movies given a 10/10

  • Milk
  • In Bruges
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
  • No Country For Old Men
  • The Shining
  • A Clockwork Orange