Milk Review

Millk-Review.jpgHey folks. Thanks for checking out our Milk review.

When I first heard that Gus Van Sant (Director of Good Will Hunting) was going to be tackling a biopic on the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official ever elected to office in the United States, I was instantly intrigued due to the fact that Milk is a fascinating character and Van Sant’s strong point has always been his use and portrayal of characters. It seemed like a good match. Add to that mix Sean Penn, who Clint Eastwood once said was the best actor working today (I have him in my top 10) along with a powerful cast, you have the makings of a very special film. Sadly, you also have the makings of a propaganda film. Thankfully it didn’t turn into a propaganda film… but sadly it didn’t quite reach the high level I was hoping for either.


The synopsis for Milk reads something like this: “After moving to San Francisco, the middle-aged New Yorker, Harvey Milk, became a Gay Rights activist and city politician. On his third attempt, he was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977, making him the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the USA. The following year, both he and the city’s mayor, George Moscone, were shot to death by former city supervisor, Dan White, who blamed his former colleagues for denying White’s attempt to rescind his resignation from the board.”


When you have a character like Harvey Milk, you absolutely need an actor who can bring him to life, and Sean Penn accomplished that above and beyond the call of duty. I will agree with a couple of my friends on this point and say that this was the single greatest performance of Sean Penn’s career… and that’s saying something because he has turned in some amazing ones. Somehow Penn was able to bring all of the outrageous flamboyance and strength of conviction that Milk had, as well as the fragile humanity, the fear, the uncertainty and yes sometimes the moral ambiguity he also possessed. I admit having a star like Penn in the lead role made me look at the character at first as just Sean Penn playing a gay dude. But the performance was so good that quickly faded away and all I saw on screen was Harvey Milk. It’s an Oscar worthy performance plain and simple… and perhaps the best performance of the year. Penn’s portrayal of Harvey Milk alone makes this film worth seeing.

The supporting cast does a remarkable job. James Franco (Spider-Man 1-3, Pineapple Express) shows he possess another level to his talent that we haven’t truly seen on screen before now as Harvey’s main love interest Scott Smith. Josh Brolin continues his incredible roll (No Country For Old Men, W) playing the man destined to kill Milk, Dan White. Emile Hirsch rebounds from the dreadfully awful “Speed Racer” and shines in just about every scene he’s in. From top to bottom there wasn’t a single weak performance given. It was a joy to watch.

The story of Harvey Milk is deeply and intimately personal, yet public and national at the same time. A look at a time not so long ago when people in the gay community could legally be fired from their jobs if it was discovered they were gay. It was this environment that Harvey Milk rose up to challenge the system and educate the nation… to make them aware. He didn’t fight battles in the street or in the courts… but rather fought to make people see. This aspect of the story was executed very well on the screen and made you as an audience member feel invested in it. Wonderfully done.


An important story with excellent performances… yet there were many points in Milk in which I felt like I was being preached at where it seemed to me that the narrative of the story was being hijacked by the message of the story (to me, the best films are the ones that allow the message of the film to be experienced and communicated through the narrative). The result was a jarring and almost violent derailing of the story which would take me out of the film each time they did it.

I understand that the use of real historical footage is meant to infuse a sense of authenticity and to make the audience feel like they were there… but in Milk it had the opposite effect on me. Instead of making the experience feel more authentic, it made it feel more like an orchestrated contrivance and a gimmick that was out of pace with the rest of the film.

The film got bogged down a number of times on unimportant side characters or side issues facing Harvey Milk that while accurate, was unnecessary to the telling of the story. The effect was the film losing its flow and made it feel overly slow at times.


Milk is a very good movie with arguably the single best performance of the year in it (given by Sean Penn) telling a story with both entertainment value and message value at the same time (something we don’t see enough of these days). It’s not a perfect film and has several bumps along the way for the viewer, but nonetheless succeeds in its goal. Overall I give Milk an 8 out of 10.

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36 thoughts on “Milk Review

  1. It is nice too see a review of the movie and not the life of Harvy Milk. If you want to know about the life of someone study history dont go to a movie. Movies are intertainment.

  2. Good point guys, I LOVED the movie, Sean Penn was awesome, but I did feel as though I was being preached to. Now, I’m not against gays so please don’t take this the wrong way, but at times I felt it was saying “If your not gay than your not normal”. And it felt as though Harvey Milk has a HATRED for straights that carried throughout the film to others. Hey, great movie though.

  3. your sexual preference is innate.Try to get a hard on for a type of female ,(or male) your not predisposed to.Besides some gays have other inherent features,walk etc. that they did’nt choose.Sure there are bi sexuals who had good sex and keep going back,or even remain exclusive to one,but most are born or predisposed and realize their situation before puberty.

  4. Hey Rick,

    I like to watch movies but I am not a movie reviewer. But my friend has written a post on the best movies of 2008. I am wondering to see if you agree with his list or not. I agreed with his list of 12 movies.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your blog. It is very informative.

    Keep up the good work and I will keep coming here often.

  5. Hey Rick,

    I’m actually friends with a couple of gay guys who are offended at the idea that they are “born gay”. They feel like you’re telling them they have some sort of birth defect or something. They claim they’re gay because they choose to be gay,

    Just saying is all.

  6. I don’t understand when someone says they don’T like gay someone made a choice.PEOPLE ARE BORN GAY!…no one chooses a lifestyle apart from normalcy.Would someone choose to be black in america in the 19th century? You hate them too i’ll bet.Besides this is a movie about something that actually happened,it’s history and serves to educate.But ignorant people usually remain ignorant because they don’t know any better.This is a forum about a movie…good or bad.,were the actors portrayals believable,Thumbs up on this one….(i don’t like gay people…..asshole)

  7. Avoiding, ditching this one like a plague. Nothing against those confused, nurturing an illusion, or in a state of denial, only future US President LARRY CRAIG or Micheal Jackson A.K.A. Mohamad Bin wid Boys type.

  8. Excellent review! i am a gay man and eminently admire Harvey Milk. While I am glad I saw the film tonight as opposed to waiting it out on DVD, I do think the film dragged a little too much. Too much play on his previous campaigns, so much emphasis on the new boyfriend. Why? I don’t think it portrayed the true elements behind Harvey as well as the 1984 documentary the Life and Times of Harvey Milk which is the best documentary I have ever seen and come to think of it some scenes in the movie were totally inconsistent with the same exact setting as depicted in the documentary. Why did they do that? Its dishonest. But this film is still important and Harvey’s life deserves the big screen. I guess Dragonslayer is an easy example why the narrative needs to be made!

  9. dear anyone saying sean penn in milk is better or worse than heath ledger in the dark knight in the context of the oscar race,
    LEDGER WOULD BE NOMINATED FOR A SUPPORTING ROLE AND PENN FOR LEAD. They are not in competition with each other, therefore end of debate.

    Also, I think this movie is great and I think Harvey Milk is such an inspiration. I’m a young, straight, white girl but I am so supportive of gay rights and equal rights for everyone, and I’m from California so this movie hits home particularly hard. And Milk’s central message that life is worth living because there is always hope and his incredibly ability to run a campaign based almost solely on grassroots support and volunteers set the stage very early for the Obama campaign.

    And Elephant is stunningly beautiful, the characters are treated rather insensitively and all but two (John and Eli) are basically broadly drawn stereotypes, but the cinematography is awe-inspiring (especially since I’m a photographer).

  10. I just saw the film, though Penn and others give a great performances; id have to agree with Jon, the film is overly preachy. Im not sure what all the fuss is about Van Sant; but he does MILK a disservice by exploiting the message of a corageous man. The trailers are very misleading, only highlighting apparently the second act. Its not the subject matter entirely, its just the way in which its executed; there’s a continous bombarding loop remending the audience that Milk is gay or the film is a love letter of sorts to gay activist; it reminded me of the stereotypical song in THE PRODUCERS “Keep It Gay” What made BROKEBACK a great film is that it tackeled(?) the subject matter without exploiting the story; simply a drama about two men in love. If your not comfortable with taboo subject matter which essentially is the first hour, its best to wait for the DVD. I for one was not and left an hour into the film; just as it was getting into the Brolin storyline, however knowing what the film entails Im willing to give another shot upon its Blu-ray release.

  11. Sorry, but Elephant sucked. One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. The ending was the worst part, besides the terrible shots.

  12. Fantastic telling of a particular time and place………Harvey was loved by more than gays, while certainly he was gay and that was his platform, it’s also a story of social change, politics and a entire slice of the civil rights movement. Clearly the murder of him and Moscone should have given White more than a simple slap on the wrist.

  13. Can an actor not be great at what he does all on his own?

    John didn’t compare Penn’s performance to Heath. He simply said it was Oscar worthy… which if it was it would be for Best Actor, while IF Heath gets a posthumous nomination, it would be Supporting Actor.

  14. I have no doubt this will be an Oscar favorite. Right now there’s very few films out there even near contention. In addition, this biopic has been in development for about what-twelve to fifteen years at least? Somewhere around there.

    I don’t know if I’ll rush out to see the film, but I most likely will see it, before DVD. Am I uncomfortable with the subject matter? Not entirely: The way I call it is that if you disagree with the subject matter and the timely debate that it follows, it probably wouldn’t hurt to see it…otherwise, you really can’t debate it.

    One thing however: should the film be nominated and lose to another picture, I don’t want to hear sour grapes over losing like that fuss ‘Brokeback’ made a few years ago to ‘Crash’.

  15. I wouldn’t say I hate gay people, but I think I am uncomfortable with the subject matter. That’s why I don’t make plans to see Brokeback Mountain. I can tell though why people love this movie. This guy changed things, and as Ronsalon pointed out, this is definitely a good movie to show what gay people go through. I totally agree with that statement. But for me, it’s just not a subject I particularly am fond of.

    I’ve only seen one film by Gus Van Sant, which was Elephant, which was one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. But I have heard some great stuff about Good Will Hunting and Paranoid Park, so I might check those out.

  16. I really want to see this film, but may have to end up waiting for the DVD since NO theaters in my town have it listed in their currently playing or soon to be coming sections of their websites. I can only hope it comes here when that “wide release” happens on the 12th.

    Really want to see it considering nothing looked good in November.

  17. As a straight man who supports gay rights, I’m trying to understand where this film tends to be preachy. Would a reenactment of grown men being beaten by the police for no real reason fit better in the film than the real, actual footage? I just had a completely different response I guess but as someone who was born in the early ’80’s, I’ve been able to grow up in a far more tolerant world than when this film takes place, so maybe this footage hits me differently.

    One more thing for me was that any of the side characters that got significant screen time either were in a relationship with Harvey or that of Dan White (Josh Brolin) who plays a very significant role in the film. Maybe, MAYBE Emile Hirsch’s character is a tad superfluous but not knowing their history, I can’t say.

  18. @ Dragonslayer,

    What do you mean you don’t want to watch a film that deals with that subject? Why not? Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you not like gay people? What’s the problem exactly?

    And stop asking for a QoS review, it’s obviously not going to happen. Get over it.

  19. Dragon, I don’t think you’re homophobic, but this does give a great opportunity for you to understand what it’s like for people who are gay. We are constantly bombarded by images we don’t share whith our fellow Earthlings. That being said, this would be a perfect movie for you to see, showing how people like us struggle to fit into a world molded by straight men. It’s too bad that you probably won’t. You might be able to understand what it feels like to be an outcast by family, freinds, and countryymen.

  20. I’m not a real fan of Gus Van Sant (especially after the catastrophe they call Elephant), and also, call me homophobic, but I don’t want to watch a film that deals with that subject.

    By the way John, could you also put up a Quantum of Solace review?

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