Dir: Gus Van Sant, 2008. Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Diego Luna, and Emile Hirsch. Gay Cinema.

Milk is the true story of gay-rights activist Harvey Milk who was the first openly homosexual man elected to public office.

Dustin Lance Black won the Academy Award for his screenplay, which is tense with information, but never loses sight of its human content. The story has a dynamic structure and has many scenes that pack an emotional punch.

There are few modern directors who push the envelope of filmmaking more than Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Elephant). With Milk, all of his greatest strengths as a storyteller are at the forefront, creating perhaps his finest work so far. The film shines through on all levels, from the writing to the performance to the staging.

Harris Savide’s cinematography is stunning and really grasps the details of that time and place in the world. His use of reflections within glass and mirrors is particularly outstanding-- a good visual tool to express that these issues are ongoing ones and that we all must deal with.

Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking), who is known largely for playing extremely emotionally dark characters, plays far against type as Harvey Milk. Penn sheds every layer of his rough-and-tumble persona (and a good deal of weight) to truly embody this real life figure. He is genuine in every moment, from overzealous joy to his darkest hours. Penn avoids the trap of a straight man “acting gay,” which is becoming a stereotypical caricature. He plays Harvey as a complex and very idealistic man, without a trace of self-consciousness. The Oscar was well deserved.

James Franco (Pineapple Express) is in his finest hour as an actor playing Milk’s longtime confidant and fellow activist, “Scott Smith.” The role allows Franco a chance at finding deep emotional strength as an actor, most especially in the intimate one-on-one moments with Penn.

As “Dan White,” Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) is one of the screen’s most straight-laced would-be assassins. He is an Irish, blue collar, Christian man who, by his very nature, is at odds with the story’s hero. Dan White is a man who lives in constant fear, under the disguise of moral strength, which leads him to a destructive end.

Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien) is terrifically dysfunctional as Harvey’s worrisome and highly toxic lover, "Jack Lira." Luna plays the role with such tenderness and vulnerability, giving humanity to a character who everyone seems to hate—including he himself.

Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) is a young street hustler named "Cleve Jones" who becomes enraged by society’s unjust ills and joins forces with Milk to do something about it. Hirsch is surely a young actor to keep an eye on. Every new role is vastly different than the last and all played convincingly.

Milk is a project long in coming, but well worth the wait.


Milk won two Oscars:  Best Actor (Sean Penn) and Best Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black). It was nominated for six additional Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin).

Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Apr 8, 2009 12:01pm
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