A dramatised account of the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official elected to office in the US.  score

moviereview rates films from
1 (unwatchable) to 5 (unmissable)
Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Joseph Cross, Victor Garber

Gus Van Sant

Dustin Lance Black


Rating / Running Time
MA / 128 minutes

Australian Release
Januray 2009

Official Site

(c) moviereview 2006-2009
ABN 72 775 390 361
Harvey Bernard Milk was the first openly gay official elected to serve the people of San Francisco. In 1978, the charismatic leader was assassinated in office. Gus Van Sant’s riveting biopic introduces Milk (Sean Penn) hours before his 40th birthday when he picks up a man on the New York subway. It was the dawn of a new decade and the disaffected pair join a gay Diaspora bound for California. Harvey and Scott (James Franco) open a camera shop in the Castro that soon becomes the focal and flash point for gay civil rights in the 1970’s. Despite the euphoria, they were dangerous times. We learn this from Milk recording his own obituary, a kitchen-table ‘if you are listening to this, you’ll know I am dead…’ tape-recording of things past, and things to come.

It is the touchstone of Van Sant’s compelling narrative that traces Milk’s rise from likeable nobody to popular somebody. The director skilfully merges the best of both his worlds; the commercial sensibility of Goodwill Hunting and experimental textures of Elephant. Working from a well-nourished screenplay, he loads the film with dramatised and archival footage that compound to deliver key moments in the activist’s life with surprising depth and intimacy. This is classical, low-sheen filmmaking with a gutsy twist that forces Milk to rise well above genre.

Penn sits at the middle, his cogent performance dominating without unbalancing an exceptional ensemble that includes Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna as Milk’s loopy lover, and Josh Brolin as a disaffected colleague swept along by the unforgiving currents of radical change. They deliver significant elements of Milk’s highly charged and highly emotional life that is part love story, part history lesson, part thriller: locating Harvey’s assassin forms a guilty pleasure. Quite simply, Milk is an unmissable film about a man who energised a movement.