Penn more than earns his oscar in this heartfelt biopic

When it comes to doling out its glitziest accolade, Hollywood knows what it likes: established stars showing off their ‘range’.

As soon as Sean Penn turned that frown upside down to play ’70s gay politician Harvey Milk, this year’s Best Actor Oscar was in the bag.

His Milk co-star Josh Brolin even made a crack about Penn’s smile being the key to his victory… But – joking aside – watching an actor who’s spent the majority of his career glowering slip so comfortably into the skin of a gay man remembered for his warmth gave Gus Van Sant’s biopic the heart it needed and made Penn a deserved second-time victor.

Penn – and Milk – have no need to milk anything, earning every last drop of emotion as Van Sant deftly stokes the tension between the pioneering San Francisco supervisor and his conservative arch-rival (Brolin) to a tragic boiling point.

Penn embraces every awkward foible of Harvey Milk’s character. He is Harvey Milk. No flag of pride for Milk’s extras, which comprise dull deleted scenes and three featurettes.

Bizarrely, there’s not a single image of the real Harvey, making for a weirdly airbrushed package. Our advice? Skip Milk’s extras and go watch Rob Epstein’s outstanding doc The Times Of Harvey Milk instead. Like Penn, it’s an Oscar winner too.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • FBEXanthopoul

      Jan 21st 2012, 16:20

      4, by Theo Alexander Gay Rights activist Harvey Milk was first documented in 1984, in the Oscar winning Times of Harvey Milk. This documentary was also loosely based on a biography written by Randy Shilts called The Mayor of Castro. Other than this, Harvey Milk has generally stayed out of the public eye. Various movie scripts have been passed around for years – as early as the early 1990’s – but continued to fall through until Milk came out in 2007. Sean Penn was given the role of Harvey Milk and on hearing this, I immediately sought it out. Under Gus Van Sant’s direction, Sean Penn would play the activist with conviction and elegance. If this wasn’t enough, a talented and young supporting cast, including James Franco and Emile Hirsch confirmed Milk as essential viewing. The film opens with the announcement of the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. The film then shows Harvey, recording his will, pre-assassination. From then on, the film cuts back and forth. It goes back to Milk’s 40th birthday, his move from New York to San Francisco and his ever-increasing activity in politics and gay rights, while intertwining with the recording of his will. The film delves into the transformation of Eureka Valley – a working class neighbourhood in San Francisco which slowly becomes the gay district known as ‘The Castro’, Milk’s involvement as a politician and revolutionary, and the nature of his various romantic and political relationships throughout the last ten years of his life. Marking an important historical event and an inspirational rebellion, Milk has become, and will remain a highly relevant and influential piece of modern cinema. While it recaptures a time, a place and a generation beautifully, it functions to remind us that San Francisco came alive with flare and colour at a certain moment in a time come and gone. And that is, perhaps, what strikes you the hardest. The very essence of this astonishing era, an era seeping with freedom and possibility is realised through this film and found for just a few hours. The filmmakers carried out extensive research, looking into San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian archives, and talking to people who knew Milk and interacted with him personally. This, I think, really helped them in forming their own idea of the time and finding the best way to represent it. The film was filmed in the city, on Castro Street, and in and around the ‘dressed up’ location of Harvey’s original camera shop. Sean Penn plays Harvey with charm, power and an almost childlike demeanour which moves towards the humorous – he takes the viewer under his wing and straight into the revolution with vigour, smiles and spirit. I’d like to say that he was the right choice but when isn’t he? James Franco was appropriately cast as Harvey Milk’s young lover and campaign manager, Scott Smith, and Josh Brolin played convincingly as conservative politician and ‘closet homosexual’ Dan White. Milk also stars Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, and Allison Pill. Though primarily a political drama, focusing on the activist’s city politics and his political wars within San Francisco and namely the Castro Neighbourhood, the film also looks into his romantic and political relationships, which form and change throughout the film. Milk is made up of many, many layers, all of which move the viewer with a tremendous force. By the time it ends, you are left in your seat with open eyes, wishing that maybe, you could have been there, or anywhere – somewhere that you might, at some point, feel something happening. Theo Alexander at

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