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A 2008 movie directed by Gus Van Sant.

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One extraordinary performance in one fine movie, which has the usual self-congratulatory blemishes

  • Mar 7, 2011
Milk is Sean Penn's best-sustained performance since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I'm not joking and I mean it as high praise.
Penn, at least in those movies of his I've seen, starts strongly and then dives head first into that famous Penn intensity that some consider acting with a capital "A." In Milk, Penn early establishes Milk as smart, empathetic, self-aware, even gentle, playful and lovable. Penn doesn't lose those qualities, and adds to them sadness, commitment and shrewdness. Penn doesn't give in to what must have been a great temptation to turn Milk and Milk's issues into a Hollywood-style, self-congratulatory showboat performance. Unfortunately, director Gus Van Sant does.
The first half or so of Milk is an outstanding movie that combines acting, issues and characterization in a just about seamless manner. We get to know and like Harvey Milk. We understand where he's coming from. His authenticity as a gay man isn't played for kiss-on-the-lips shock value, just for who Milk is. His growth as a gay rights activist -- and a shrewd one -- is not presented with rants and melodrama. His defeats and then success in San Francisco politics is given to us understandably and with wit. But then we get to Proposition 6. For me, Gus Van Sant caricatures the struggle, throwing up the proponents as oily monsters, setting up Milk as the sole voice of humor and reason, who scores points while all those coiffured PTA moms register disapproval.
The last third of Milk, for me, changes from an intensely sympathetic story of an interesting man and the issues he fought for to the kind of brave screed for human rights and justice that the Hollywood establishment latches on to only when the danger has past and it's safe for them to take a stand. Not only does Van Sant seem to forget Milk is a human being, but we also find ourselves in the Hollywood version of processing Milk for sainthood.
It seems to me that homosexuality in Hollywood films has for a long time been played either for easy laughs or for tawdry or vicious melodrama. Then Hollywood entered it's brave phase of gay love, with young men metaphorically running across the fields to each other in slow motion or whispering dreamily to each other of their hopes and plans while wondering why people can't just let them alone.
Milk gets it right in my view. Harvey Milk flirts, gets horny, kisses right on the smacker, laughs, loves to jump in bed with someone he either loves or who just turns him on, has love problems, believes in issues that are important to him, makes good choices and bad choices. Well, gay or straight, male or female, don't most of us? Sean Penn makes Milk not just believable but matter of fact. It's a terrific performance.
One extraordinary performance in one fine movie, which has the usual self-congratulatory blemishes One extraordinary performance in one fine movie, which has the usual self-congratulatory blemishes One extraordinary performance in one fine movie, which has the usual self-congratulatory blemishes

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March 08, 2011
IMHO, this was one of the most well-acted films of our age. Great review!!
March 07, 2011
Penn deserves more attention as an actor, I think. You've convinced me to watch this on DVD. Thanks, C!
More Milk (2008 movie) reviews
review by . August 23, 2014
posted in Movie Hype
We just returned from San Francisco and visited the Castro section of the city which is known for being the center of the San Francisco gay rights area in the late 70s.      Watching the movie, Milk, about the life of gay activist, Harvey Milk, was all that more powerful after seeing the Castro section in today's times.      Sean Penn did an excellent job in portraying Harvey Milk and making him a real person with a goal to have better rights for gay people. …
review by . March 01, 2009
By all accounts, Harvey Milk was a breath of fresh air, the light in the room, the life of the party. By "all accounts", I mean that's what Dennis Peron said when I asked him.     I had the interesting experience of staying at the home of one of Harvey's friends and fellow activists in the Castro during the filming of the movie. Peron makes only a very brief appearence in the movie, but he was very excited about it and (when I could get him to stop talking about the medical marijuana …
review by . November 18, 2009
I first heard the name Harvey Milk about a few years ago when a new high school for gay teens was being opened in Manhattan and stirred a lot of controversy.  That school was named after Harvey Milk.  The news said that he was an openly gay politician from San Franscisco. I was a little remiss at the time because when I hear somebody mentioned who I know nothing about, I usually research them at a minimum on Wikipedia.  I failed and the name Harvey Milk was filed deep in my brain …
Quick Tip by . August 29, 2009
Amazing movie. Sean Penn was perfect. What a great biopic tribute to a great man.
review by . March 09, 2009
If you've ever seen a biopic of Martin Luther King Jr. or John F. Kennedy (or his brother), you're probably familiar with the standard arc: the hero as a child, then a struggling young adult, the sensitive woman who stood by his side, etc.  Milk immediately distinguishes itself by starting at a point when the main character, Harvey Milk, is already a middle-aged middle management flunky. Where did he come from? What's his family like? Did he pass A.P. Calculus in high school? We don't know. …
review by . April 14, 2009
Contrary to what you might have been led to believe, Harvey Milk was not one of the most influential politicians who ever lived. He assumed public office in his late forties. He held that position less then a year before he was killed by a fellow politician. Truthfully, if you were to look at the biggest thing he accomplished, it would be that he got people to start picking up their pets droppings in public. Yes, the biggest law he helped get pasted involved poop. So if this was his greatest claim …
review by . April 11, 2009
Sean Penn does it again and easily delivers one of his best performances bringing to life a character and a man we no longer have, and may never see again. This is a cast filled with genuine legends like Penn & Brolin, and up and coming megastars such as Emile Hirsch and James Franco. Each and every cast member seems to give it their all in keeping loyal to their played roles character in order to play an honest homage to this legendary figure. Gus Van Sant, is a relatively unknown Director …
review by . March 26, 2009
I have to say honestly that when I learned Sean Penn would play Harvey Milk in this film, I had great trepidation.  Don't get me wrong; I'm a huge fan of Sean Penn.  Anyone who can create the character he plays in Dead Man Walking and also be the Sam of I Am Sam is just brilliant.  But a gay politician???  Sean Penn??    And yet... Penn is brilliant once again.  One of the great aspects of this tightly woven drama is the interspersing of real, not re-created, …
review by . May 17, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
This is an important movie. I feel like everyone should see this now. Unfortunately I didn't know much about Harvey Milk before seeing this movie but wow, what an important and beautiful person he was! And what a tragic way for his life to end. I will admit it, the ending made me cry.    For some reason it took me a bit to get into the movie but once I was into it I was INTO it. Movies are always wonderful to watch but when they are based on real people they become something …
review by . December 14, 2008
Still from
I just saw Milk at the alumni get-together this afternoon. Afterwards, one of Harvey's colleagues and fellow SF supervisor during his tenure, Carol Ruth Silver, did a little talk about the film's depictions. She said the film was right-on in its depictions of Harvey and of that 1970s era in San Francisco.   One of the surprising things Silver revealed was that Dan White had also targeted her on the morning of the Moscone-Milk assassinations at City Hall. After the first two assassinations, …
About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer ()
Ranked #16
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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About this movie


Director Gus Van Sant brings to the screen the epic journey of one man and the start of a movement. Written by Dustin Lance Black the story of Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official, a San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated, on November 27, 1978, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by San Francisco Supervisor Dan White.
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Director: Gus Van Sant
Genre: Drama
Release Date: November 26, 2008
MPAA Rating: R
DVD Release Date: March 10, 2009
Runtime: 2hrs. 8min.
Studio: Focus Features
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