James Franco and Sean Penn in Milk

For those living under a rock for the past six months, Milk chronicles the political career of one Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to US public office in the 1970s: from his first baby-steps into the political big league to his untimely death at the hands of a fellow politician.

The Oscar buzz surrounding the film, and the accolades it has received make this the must-see ‘gay movie’ of the year. However, it’s more than just a civil rights piece; it’s also a brilliant film.

Openly-gay director Gus Van Sant has had his share of bad films, but he has also created several memorable works that deserved all of their acclaim. (Good Will Hunting, My Own Private Idaho). Milk most definitely fits into the latter category. As a drama, it manages to cover the salient points in Milk’s career without coming across as a dry, gay-rights documentary. That said, it does incorporate a few documentary-style features.

Photos of the raids and riots at the time, clips of anti-gay activists Anita Bryant and John Briggs during their Save Our Children campaign, as well as footage of the actual Milk Administration all feature throughout the film.

Sean Penn is generally quite uncharismatic and incredibly serious in his choice of roles, and while you can appreciate that he’s a fantastic actor, he’s often very difficult to watch. However, in Milk he recreates the late politician with incredible charm and a natural humour that proves he deserved that Best Actor Oscar.

He captures Milk’s physical and vocal mannerisms to perfection, and not once did he come across as a straight-man-playing-gay simply to show off his acting chops. If Penn’s performance is as accurate as they claim, you can easily see how the real life Harvey Milk managed to win the support of even the most conservative sectors of San Francisco.

James Franco is slowly revealing that he’s more than just a pretty-boy action star, and it’s hard not to be seduced by his portrayal of Milk’s lover and supporter in the early years of his campaign. Josh Brolin (playing Milk’s political adversary, Dan White) also manages to play a homophobic villain without entering pantomime mode which, in a film such as this, would have been an easy way for Van Sant to garner even more sympathy for Milk.

The only major problem with the film seems to be that perhaps Sean Penn’s performance may be remembered more than Harvey Milk himself, as most of the film’s public interest has stemmed from the Oscar buzz. Thankfully, Van Sant includes a sequence during the credits that shows images of the real life Milk administration next to their film doppelgangers. While reminding the audience of the reality of Milk’s crusade, it also showcases the skilled casting, as several of the actors look uncannily close to their real life counterparts.

Like the real life event, Milk’s tragic ending does feel like it comes out of nowhere, especially considering it happened just as Milk’s political career was entering full-swing. However, the final scenes that use actual footage from the march, organised to commemorate the man, manage to be touching without bordering on insipid sentimentality.

The film is one of the most important gay films to be released this decade, and had it been released in theatres just a few months earlier in the US, with such a normalised view of gay society and its obstacles, who knows if it could have changed the outcome of the Proposition 8 vote in California?

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