“Have bullhorn, will travel”could have been gay civil rights activist Harvey Milk’s mantra, instead of “I’m Harvey Milk — and I’m here to recruit you.”Whatever the rhetoric, Milk’s message was a simple one of respect, equality and hope.
In 1977, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man voted into public office in America. And that ever-present bullhorn – given to him by a member of the Teamsters – was part of his arsenal. But Milk’s struggle began years before in Manhattan where, on the eve of his 40th birthday, he picked up a partner, Scott Smith (James Franco), who helped him evaluate his life. Together, they moved to San Francisco and opened Castro Camera in a working-class neighborhood that soon became a gathering place for the gay community. Recognizing Milk’s charismatic leadership, the Teamsters enlisted his help in their protest against Coors Beer — and Milk earned staunch union support for gay rights, along with a Mayoral ally (Victor Garber), much to the chagrin of fellow supervisor and eventual murderer, Dan White (Josh Brolin).
Written by Dustin Lance Black (“Big Love”) and directed by Gus Van Sant, it’s a socio-political biopic. Using a narrative device, along with black-and-white archival footage of that era, it traces the last eight years of Milk’s life. His proteges — Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) and Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) — reflect different perspectives. Only Milk’s unstable Mexican lover, Jack Lira (Diego Luna), strikes a distractingly discordant chord.
Ferociously impassioned, Sean Penn brings powerful conviction to the role, embodying Milk with the kind of touching vulnerability and impeccable dignity that deserves Oscar recognition. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Milk” is an intense 9. It’s a must-see performance.