Review of Gus Van Sant's new movie starring Sean Penn about LGBT activist Harvey Milk
Now playing in theaters nationwide is the true tale of the last eight years of the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major public office. If you haven’t heard of him before (and we certainly hope you have), Milk served on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco for an unfortunately brief period of time in 1978 before being shot and killed inside City Hall, along with Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber), by Dan White (Josh Brolin)—a troubled colleague who first resigned his seat as Supervisor of District 8 before quickly changing his mind and unsuccessfully trying to reclaim it, just a few weeks prior to the shooting.
With Sean Penn playing the title role under the direction of Gus Van Sant, this film leaves no heartstring unpulled. Penn’s performance is perfectly balanced with delicacy and vigor as he engenders the struggle of a man whose 40s were imbued with passion and love, defeat and triumph. Penn gives life to a legacy that changed the lives of many gay Americans, as well as American history itself. Don’t expect much from the female roles in this film, however. Of the two female characters, one is homophobic antagonist Anita Bryant (shown through archival footage) and the other is lesbian activist Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), who arrives towards the end of the film to help bring Milk to victory in his third attempt at securing the seat in District 5. Among the many great performances are Emile Hirsch’s role as activist Cleve Jones and Diego Luna’s portrayal of Milk’s melodramatic lover, Jack Lira. The film does not skimp on the same-sex love scenes, which are a wonderful “risk” for straight actors to undertake.
In light of political events this year, there are many bittersweet feelings in watching Milk celebrate the success of defeating Proposition 6, which sought to ban gays from teaching in public schools in California as well as remove any known homosexuals from their jobs. Combined with the tragedy of his death, the reasons for welling up with tears, if not outright bawling, are plentiful. But what is most striking about the timeliness of this film is the message of hope Milk offered in one of his most famous speeches: “Without hope, not only gays, but those Blacks and the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s...the us’s…without hope, the us’s give up. I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you got to give them hope.”
For more information about the film and the life of Harvey Milk, check out milkthemovie.com.