Dec 102008
Authors: Marjorie Hamburger

“Milk” is the true story of an ordinary man who made extraordinary advancements for humanity. His name was Harvey Milk, and he was the first gay man elected to public office in the United States. In 1977, Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and in 1978 he was assassinated along with San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone.

Although the audience knows of Milk’s ultimate fate within the first five minutes, this is not a film about defeat. It is a story of hope. Sean Penn gives an Academy Award worthy performance as Milk, a previously closeted gay man working as a stock broker in New York. After meeting his love interest, Scott Smith (James Franco), the two move to The Castro, a well-known gay community in San Francisco.

Milk begins to take political action for gay rights after coming to the realization that he’s 40-years-old and “hasn’t done a thing.” With the help of many friends and supporters, (featuring an all-star cast including Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill and Lucas Grabeel) Milk successfully takes office after years of endless campaigning.

Harsh challenges face Milk while in office, including the unyielding bigotry of those also in power. Among these people is Dan White, a fellow member of the Board of Supervisors, played by Josh Brolin who formerly starred as Bush from “W.” White comes from an Irish-Catholic family that remains intolerant of gays due to religious views. Milk and White share an awkward acquaintanceship that eventually reveals White’s ignorance, prejudice, and possible homosexuality.

A key piece of legislation Milk fights is Proposition 6, which would allow openly gay teachers and anyone who supports them to be fired. In light of the recent Proposition 8 that passed this election, it is clear the situations present in 1978 are just as prevalent 30 years later.

This film is not only about politics, it is about the inner lives and struggles of all people who don’t define themselves as heterosexual. It is heartbreaking to witness the turmoil of those unable to come out because of society’s intolerance. Even those who do come out face relentless battles both externally and internally, often resulting in stigmatized relationships, self-hatred and suicide.

Milk’s goal was to help everyone come out of the closet and show the world they are strong, united, and most of all, fellow human beings. When people realize they know at least one non-heterosexual, they would hopefully be less likely to condemn them. His often-used expression was “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”

Gus Van Sant’s film is nothing short of a triumph both politically and cinematically. Apart from the miraculous breakthrough in subject matter, “Milk” displays outstanding achievements in stylistic techniques and acting.

The movie is set as a series of flashbacks from recorded tapes Milk made in the event of his assassination (he really did create these tapes in 1977).

The mixture of new reels and archival footage blends together so well that it’s difficult at times to differentiate the two. The vigil scene showing tens of thousands of people walking the streets as far as the eye can see appears staged for dramatic effect, and I was astonished to discover it was real documentation. This is how important of a figure Milk was.

“Milk” stars an incredibly talented group of actors and actresses who play their parts with deliberation and a lot of spunk. I applaud Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna for their ability to bring unforgettably humorous and profound personalities to their characters. Josh Brolin is a master at bringing the utterly complex role of Dan White to life. James Franco plays Milk’s boyfriend with beauty and sincerity. In fact, the relationship between the two might be one of cinema’s more profound love stories.

And of course, there is Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. If he doesn’t win best actor at the Oscars, I will be dumbfounded. Not only does he take on the hair, the posture, the gestures and the facial expressions of Milk, but he successfully captures the charm, the wit and the anguish of a man destined to change society. Each of his qualities, either favorable or flawed, are captured with precision.

Milk was an ordinary man who became a hero to many. This film is a worthy tribute to his life. As Milk was a beacon of hope in the late ’70s, the film “Milk” brings that same feeling to life today. It’s like he said, “You’ve got to give them hope.”

Staff writer Marjorie Hamburger can be reached at

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