I was not expecting to be blown away by Milk – just another biopic, I thought, very political and bound to be too long. How wrong I was!

 I had the opening lines of this review in my head: ‘Sean Penn was robbed’ – we saw Milk the afternoon of the Oscars, and I was astounded – but thrilled – when Hollywood defied all predictions and left Mickey Rourke out in the cold. Amazed because I thought that Hollywood is as sentimental as all the pundits and critics have been since the ceremony (all banging on about how Rourke should have won), and was bound to give Rourke the nod for being the greatest come-back kid (well, pensioner maybe), rather than judging on performance.

Sean Penn truly deserved Best Actor for his magnetic and inspirational portrayal of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to political office when he won a San Francisco Supervisor seat in 1977, after several attempts. The film documents the last ten years of Milk’s life told through effective use of flashback. We first meet Harvey Milk dictating his reflections on his life to be made public in the event of his untimely death. On the eve of his 40thbirthday he picks up a stranger and confesses ‘I’m 40 and I haven’t done anything’; rising to his lover’s challenge to change all this, he sets off for San Francisco as a bearded and pony-tailed hippy, determined to fight for gay rights and lead the crusade for civil liberties. With his devoted partner Scott Smith, moodily played by handsome James Franco, he opens a photo shop which soon becomes a focus for activism and attracts a motley crew of committed and beautiful people to the cause. Finally, once elected, he encounters arch-conservative Irish-American Dan White, a broody and clean cut Josh Brolin, who seems to have a love-hate relationship with Milk (indeed there are some hints that he is a closet gay), a fatal attraction as its turns out. It is no secret that both Milk and the liberal Mayor were gunned down by White, so the second half of the film dramatically charts the path to the inevitable finale. 

Sounds boring written like this, as if the film is devoid of suspense, but Penn plays Milk with a campness hard to relate to the Sean Penn we know, with such infectious enthusiasm, with flirtatious smiles, sincere political activism and leadership qualities that bring a palpable sense of the excitement and the thrill of the challenge. No more so than in the fight to overturn Proposition 6, a campaign led by the fanatical religious right to forbid gays from holding teaching posts. So even though the story is well-known, there is always a feeling of anticipation.

Penn’s achievement is to portray Harvey Milk as a real person, flaws and all. His good points – his engaging personality, compassion for young people,  and kindness to his elderly constituents; and his weaknesses – his self-obsession, his arrogance, especially with officials, his appalling judgement on personal issues and his promiscuity,  capped by his relationship with queenie Jack Lira (Diego Luna) whom he brazenly takes to important  meetings with embarrassing consequences. But he brings him to life. And in the closing sequence we see the uncanny likeness between the real Harvey Milk and Penn’s creation.

Although Sean Penn isthe film to a greater extent, he is also supported by a great cast and by Gus Van Sant’s excellent direction: the script is witty, the demos are well staged, interspersed with excellent use of grainy news footage from the time, in particular of the saccharine Christian homophobic campaigner Anita Bryant; the staged crowd scenes and rallies are mesmerising, especially the closing candlelight vigil – apparently 30,000 people marched on City Hall after Harvey Milk was shot. There are some amusing touches, too, which firmly locate the film in the 70s: we see Harvey at Tosca, visibly moved; but Tosca and Scarpia are both obese, as singers were in those days; his birthday party reverberates to the anthem of the decade – Le Freak, c’est chic (how well I remember that song!).

And finally, perhaps Hollywood at this particular time in our history saw that a film about civil liberties, despite being set over 30 years ago, has as much meaning about today’s problems, with religious fanaticism, ignorance and bigotry remaining some of the largest threats to world peace. Thus Sean Penn’s superb performance edges Mickey Rourke’s which, while good, is nevertheless in the context of a more clichéd film, where he really only plays himself.

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