Sean Penn is outstanding as a gay activist in Milk, a potent, purposeful drama whose lead actor tops the movie itself.

That’s not to cut Milk short of its due. Almost every adult in America will gain from having seen the gay-themed movie, which filters the rise of the nation’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, through the Jewish firebrand’s pre-cautionary thoughts, which he audiotaped in case of assassination.

As most of you know, Milk was murdered—with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), with whom Milk had forged an alliance—by a Catholic city supervisor (Josh Brolin in his best act ever) named Dan White. White later committed suicide.

Flamboyant, small-scale rabble-rouser Milk is, from the beginning of his quest, aware of the enormous potential for both risk and reward in advancing a radical idea, in this case tolerance for—as against government harassment of—the open homosexual. Pondering each death threat in losing campaign after losing campaign, emotionally scarred by damage he himself had caused by going along to get along, middle-aged, newly liberated Milk is undaunted—and he is consciously ahead of his time.

This was San Francisco in the Seventies, with long hair, sexual promiscuity and drugs, excesses that were regarded as a partial rejection of, but actually stem from acceptance of, religion. This is merely implied through the movie’s other depicted Seventies development: America’s insidious mixing of religion and state.

The catalyst was former beauty pageant winner Anita Bryant (herself in TV news clips), an early Christian conservative whose crusade against gays succeeded, which subsequently alarmed the people of California, fostering voter rejection of a wicked proposed law—Milk’s climax and counterpoint to the recent passage of California’s religious-backed gay marriage ban—and, finally, resulting in the election of a slightly remade Harvey Milk. Anita Bryant’s specific arguments may have been valid, but it was her hatred of homosexuality that came through; she wanted to ban homosexuality as such. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Milk does it well, essentializing his progression in personal and political terms if not really showing what motivated the man. Penn, at last easing up on the mannerisms, relaxes and makes the part entirely his own, pausing to deliver the picture’s best line—a retort to a heel-clicking gay Democrat—with fire in his eyes and in a deep, slow and serious tone. Milk’s finest moment comes in a victory speech, invoking the Statue of Liberty and the Declaration of Independence, representing the nation’s best principles. It is nearly impossible while watching Milk not to notice that we are moving fast from those ideas in the other direction and that is chiefly due to Sean Penn’s strong performance.

For those inclined to dismiss Milk as a movie made for a minority, it is worth noting that Milk’s cause—whether one accepts it as truthful—remains pertinent. After all, the supposedly enlightened city in which he served is today the scene of a brutal gang-rape of a homosexual for being homosexual and today’s gays continue to be vilified by no one less powerful that the President-elect’s chosen pastor, Rev. Rick Warren, a dangerous man who is the logical culmination of what Anita Bryant sought to establish. 

As an American theocracy continues to form, as in Arkansas, where it recently became illegal for unmarried opposite (and same) sex couples to adopt, this picture is urgently relevant; as in Nazi Germany, gays may be among the first of many victims. Today’s homosexual is particularly vulnerable to mob rule.

Milk dramatizes one man who stands alone against the mob and its silent prejudice. With the outcome disclosed through a memorable news clip of now-Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose career was born of these assassinations, businessman Milk, an apparently former Republican, turns from secrecy to advocacy, refusing to consent to the status quo.

Milk, contrasting the death-premise introvert who drunkenly, loudly comes undone, maintains its lens on the life-driven extrovert who quietly, steadily achieves an ideal. When Milk sits with his partner (James Franco) in front of the shop he bought, runs and owns, a window sign represents his credo: “Yes, we are open.”

For Milk’s chattering about job discrimination laws and rent control—neither of which is arguably consistent with individual rights—that phrase is the milk of this well-done movie, which is similar to the also-excellent Kinsey. The unruly, mid-life latecomer, as portrayed in Sean Penn’s riveting performance, knows that his achievements—taking the homosexual from misfit to outcast—transcend even his own life. These days, that itself is an accomplishment and, in that regard, so is Milk—which you should see before it is forbidden by the state to do so.

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