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Milk PosterMilk takes us back to San Francisco in the 1970’s, when Harvey Milk, a camera store owner in the predominantly gay Castro district, was elected  city supervisor in 1977, becoming the country’s first openly gay elected official.  Milk tells the story of Harvey, whom we first meet in New York on the verge of his 40th birthday, until his murder by fellow city supervisor Dan White in San Francisco in 1978, less than 10 years later.   

Milk is a very fine film.  Director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, do a great job of returning the audience to an era which seems much longer than 30 years ago.  In the pre-AIDS era, Harvey galvanized the gay community and got them out to vote.  Milk chronicles the rising sense of political consciousness in this community.  Harvey moves from a man who admits that he has “never done anything he’s proud of” to a larger-than-life icon.  Harvey sees the injustices committed against the gay community, including the right to participate in society, right to protection from violence and harassment, and acknowledgement of basic human dignity.  Harvey learns how to make political alliances to work for the causes he advocates.  He works with unions, the elderly, and other minority groups.  After four tries, he is finally elected as a city supervisor.  Even while he celebrates his victories, Harvey’s immersion in the political sphere takes its toll on his personal life. 

Milk2Van Sant intersperses documentary footage from the 70’s, along with frequent use of news footage of Walter Cronkite and Anita Bryant, adding an air of authenticity to his story.  Van Sant captures the energy of the times as people marches in San Francisco’s Castro district.  When Harvey begins his speeches with “My name is Harvey Milk.  And I’m here to recruit you;” we’re ready to get up and go.  The movie is framed by Harvey, aware of death threats, dictating his life story to a tape recorder, knowing full well that his life may end suddenly.  The scenes of a solitary Harvey dictating his life story add a poignant touch to the high energy of most of the film. 

I can’t say enough about the performance of Sean Penn.  He becomes Harvey Milk.  I’ve seen his great performances, from Dead Man Walking to Mystic River. In each one, he completely immerses himself in the character, from his accent to his body language.  Penn brings out Harvey’s emerging consciousness:  his drive, his energy, his passion, his ability to recruit others.  At the same time, we see the tenderness Harvey exhibits to young men who call him from all over the country, on the verge of suicide and despair.  Harvey speaks of their human dignity and gives them hope.   

Penn gets great support from a fine supporting cast, including Josh Brolin as the troubled killer Dan White, James Franco as Harvey’s partner Scott, and Emile Hirsh as Cleve, a runaway who becomes an organizer for Harvey.  At the end of the film, Van Sant shows film of the historical persons, alongside the actors who played them in the movie.  The resemblance is remarkable.

Some may be disturbed by the gay lifestyle depicted in the film.  But Van Sant and Black do not exploit the sexuality and lifestyle, which are so instrumental to their story.  Milk is a fine film about emerging political consciousness which acknowledges the inherent rights and dignity of all people, as does the Church.  It’s a theme that’s as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.

Tom Condon, OP 


Best Actor: Sean Penn


The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.