A fascinating, inspiring, and important film about a fascinating, inspiring, and important man and his fight for gay rights (and, by extension, civil rights), Milk is both intellectually interesting and emotionally resonant, and it lingers in the mind after the end credits have rolled. The movie does not feel manipulative; all the emotional responses it elicits are genuinely earned.
Two small but very touching scenes show Milk talking to Paul, a troubled young man from Minnesota. The climactic scene is appropriately shocking and unforgettable. By the time the candlelight-march sequence and Milk’s last words arrive, the film’s poignancy is undeniable.
Working from a strong, Academy Award–winning script written by Dustin Lance Black, Gus Van Sant wisely goes for a straightforward and relatively conventional directorial style that keeps the focus on the characters and the story. By seamlessly integrating archival footage into the narrative, the filmmakers achieve a distinctive documentary feel that serves to strengthen the movie’s rich atmosphere. The attention to period detail shines through in pretty much every frame. Danny Elfman’s respectful score beautifully complements the images on the screen.
Sean Penn is downright marvelous and positively enchanting in the role of Harvey Milk, who comes across as a sympathetic, charming, funny, and humanly flawed person; it is not at all surprising that Penn received an Oscar for best actor in a leading role. James Franco and Josh Brolin give first-rate, nuanced performances as Scott Smith and Dan White, respectively. Also noteworthy are Emile Hirsch, who plays Cleve Jones, and Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg. Jack Lira, portrayed by Diego Luna, may seem out of place because of his behavior, but that is arguably intentional and—as far as I can tell—true to the character.