Scott Smith (James Franco) and lover Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). Photo Credit: Focus Features
Scott Smith (James Franco) and lover Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). Photo Credit: Focus Features

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Like the man whose life story it portrays, Gus Van Sant’s biopic “Milk” is already achieving legendary status. Small wonder: the story of Harvey Milk (1930-1978) is like no other.

Milk was only 48 when he died. Until he was 42, he was, by his own admission, little more than a bean counter. What he achieved in only six years forever changed the course of gay history. There are numerous events we can look back upon as being pivotal moments in the struggle for LGBT equality, but no one in the history of our movement stands out quite like Harvey Milk. He galvanized us as no one has before or since. The first openly gay man to be elected to major political office in the U.S. (other out politicians came before in other roles), he was also singularly responsible for bringing gay men and lesbians together as one unified community.

In the three decades that followed his death, Milk has achieved an almost God-like status. Director Van Sant wisely reminds us that in spite of his extraordinary achievements, Harvey Milk was just as human as the rest of us.

Sean Penn offers a career defining portrait of the late political leader — the actor’s performance is as exceptional as the life it recreates. Penn’s multi-layered nuances shines a light on the almost “Jekyll and Hyde”-like transformation that Milk underwent. The film opens in 1970 New York City, when Harvery Milk is a shy, closeted Wall Street broker. He meets Scott Smith (James Franco), the love of his life. The pair moves to San Francisco, where Milk grows a pony tail, opens a camera shop, comes out and changes the world. Few actors are capable of conveying so many differing emotions in a single role, yet Penn pulls it off. There’s not a false note to be found in Penn’s jaw dropping portrayal: have we just seen next year’s Best Actor winner?

As brilliant as he was in the political arena, Milk couldn’t make a go of his relationships. As his political star ascends, he neglects Smith, until an exhausted Smith walks. Enter Jack Lira (Diego Luna) a depressed, suicidal alcoholic. Milk takes the young man in, and a horror story is born. Jack throws drunken tantrums, clings to Milk with a frightening dependency, and embarrasses the new San Francisco City Supervisor in public. Yet the politically savvy Milk refuses to end the disastrous relationship: “He needs me,” he says of Lira.

Harvey Milk was far from perfect, and in letting us see this — his human side — Van Sant and Penn allow Milk, the character, to be fully three dimensional.

Oscar buzz will no doubt be swirling around Josh Brolin, too, whose performance as Dan White is chilling. The straight, ultra-conservative, possibly closeted White was Milk’s political adversary and eventual murderer. White is a tortured soul pushed over the edge. His act of unspeakable evil is horrifying. In every scene that Brolin appears, he brings White’s slowly emerging rage to the surface. It’s a restrained performance not unlike Anthony Perkins’ turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960): In “Milk,” White is a gentle, quiet monster.

Van Sant beautifully recreates the San Francisco of the 1970s. Much of the film was shot in the Castro, the city’s self contained gay ghetto. Storefronts and the beautiful Castro Theatre are dressed to look as they did all those years ago: those who remember the Milk era have verified that the recreation is absolutely authentic.

When Milk marches through the streets, campaigns for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, or rallies the troops at City Hall, he’s joined by a cast of thousands. The film has the kind of epic sweep usually associated with classic Hollywood but rarely seen in gay cinema.

Like the man it portrays, “Milk” the Movie is an extraordinary achievement.

This past Election Day, Americans made history when Sen. Barack Obama was elected to the White House. It was a bittersweet victory: that same day, anti-gay initiatives were passed in California, Arizona, Arkansas and Florida.

This was a wake up call for many to not be complacent: the fight for our rights is far from over.
“Milk” has the power to galvanize us anew, just like its namesake character did those many years ago.

— David Alex Nahmod lives in San Francisco. Visit him at