This finally happened in 2008, when largely unknown screenwriter Dustin Lance Black became one of the greatest Cinderella stories in Hollywood when his script for Milk became the foundation for making the film a reality.
• After Milk’s title sequence – featuring archive footage of police in major US cities “cracking down” on gay bars and arresting patrons – we meet average businessman Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) in New York City, turning 40 and picking up Scotty (James Franco) while cruising the subway platform. They decide to move to San Francisco (specifically, the city’s gay-friendly Castro Street area) to avoid the brutality of the NYPD – yet are met with the same oppression and violence from the SFPD.
• When a police beating results in the death of a local gay man, Milk announces his candidacy for city supervisor. Ironically, he encounters resistance from the most affluent and influential gays in San Francisco. They tell Milk not to expect to jump into a leadership role, that it’s better to side with straight officials who sympathize with their cause: “We’re like the Catholic church. We like converts, but we don’t make them Pope the next day.”
• Following two failed bids for City Council and one for California State Assembly, Milk is finally elected to San Francisco’s City Council. His big fight is to prevent the passing of Proposition 6, which would overturn gay rights in the state, including the right for gay teachers to work in public schools.
While Harvey Milk’s crusades were absolutely noble and courageous, they come off as a bit repetitive in Milk up to a point. They go along the lines of, “Harvey, we’ve got a problem; Person/Legislation X is against gays.” “OK, gather everybody; let’s march/rally!” That changes when the film focuses on Milk’s efforts to defeat Prop 6, which is where Milk really picks up, both in suspense and emotional impact.
As Milk, Penn does what he’s done so well in films like Dead Man Walking, Carlito’s Way – hell, even Fast Times at Ridgemont High: He disappears behind his character so you forget you’re watching Sean Penn the actor and instead become immersed in the person he’s portraying.
Penn (rightly nominated for an Oscar for this role) is backed by an excellent supporting cast, including Franco, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and fellow Milk Oscar nominee Josh Brolin as fellow city councilman Dan White – a man who slowly unravels and is pushed to the limit as he sees his morals, livelihood, and allies eroding before him.
I will say that, having seen the excellent documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, I don’t recall Milk being as fey as Penn portrays him – the real Milk gestured more boldly and had a less nasally, mousy voice than the one Penn projects. But this a minor nit. Bottom line, Milk is a good film, and Penn is great in it.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).
Will your kids want to see it?Kids? Doubt it. Teens may have an interest in Milk, and it may come down to their (or your) personal tastes whether they should see it. Milk is rated R for, according to the MPAA, “language, some sexual content and brief violence.” While the language itself may earn the film an R – including many gay slurs said by homophobes and in jest between gay men – the sex scenes, had they been straight couples, would have probably been tame enough to earn Milk a PG-13. (Check out the amazing documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated for the double standard surrounding the rating of films with gay sex scenes versus straight ones.)
Will your FilmMother like it?Milk is a solid film, and Penn elevates above it in a powerful performance. I think both she and you will be rewarded by checking it out.
* Director: Gus Van Sant
* Screenwriter: Dustin Lance Black
* Stars: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Diego Luna
* MPAA Rating: R (language, some sexual content and brief violence)
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