As a politician and activist, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) was an aggressive populist. He believed in the service of government to meet the needs of all members of society, encouraged gay men and women to come out of the closet, inspired different communities and unions to pool their resources, and rallied everyone against discriminatory legislation. Speaking not long before his murder about lobbying for gay rights, Milk said – in the quotation etched onto the sculpture bust of him that now stands in San Francisco’s City Hall – “I ask for the movement to continue, because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give ‘em hope.” This is a belief that surely holds true in today’s difficult climate. Milk himself had been given hope by his adopted home of San Francisco, when he lived in the Castro district – one of the few places in America during the late 60s where gay people could live in relative freedom. Milk opened a business, Castro Camera, on Castro Street – a premises which developed into more of a community centre where Milk’s gregarious personality and sense of humour put him on the road to eventual public office. “Milk was a charismatic leader and a father figure to his people – some of whom might have lost their fathers because of their sexuality – who accomplished so much in a short period of time,” says screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
Reproducing the period detail of the time, director Gus van sant’s use of 35mm film stock brings a grainy 60s feel to procedings – as do the spot-on fashions of high waists and wide ties. It might have been the Age of Aquarius, but where was Armani when he was needed? Milk is a marvellously acted film from Penn’s sure handling of a frantic personality to Hirsch as activist Cleve Jones, and Franco as Milk’s put-upon lover.