It's possible I might see a better movie in the next two weeks, but I doubt it.
When history is known (like, say, with the upcoming WWII movie Valkyrie about a plot to assassinate Hitler), a movie can loose its dramatic tension since "we know what happens." A good director, screenwriter and cast can compensate by dynamic direction, an intelligent script and spot-on acting. Milk succeeds on all points. Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have created a compelling movie. And Sean Penn gives the most joyful, winning performance I've ever seen from him.
Milk is the story of an unlikely political activist. Harvey Milk was a closeted gay guy in New York City until his very late 30s. The early scenes of Milk remind you what a bad old time the '50s and '60s were for gay men, with old footage of police raids on gay bars.
By the early '70s, Harvey had met Scott, a much younger man. They ran off to San Francisco together where they opened a camera store. They had a very affectionate relationship. If this movie had been about a heterosexual couple and not a homosexual couple, it would have been rated PG-13 instead of R. Still, I've heard reports of some audience members leaving during the early kissing scenes (there are some sex scenes, but they are extremely discreet). Why would you go to a movie about a gay man coming out of the closet if watching two men kissing was going to upset you? I didn't leave when the hate-mongers in the movie spewed homophobia; this is truly disgusting compared to two men (or two women) kissing.
As a business owner, Harvey understood the importance of being out and being organized. He became a frequently unsuccessful candidate for local office, while becoming more politically able and building a network of young men to support neighborhood causes. In these scenes, some of the actors are actually old friends of Harvey's from the '70s. In at least five different scenes, you see the writer Frank Robinson, a man who was Harvey's contemporary. While I wish they'd mentioned who Frank was, it was nice to see he was involved in the movie.
Harvey became an expert at working the crowd and working the press. While Scott had served as Harvey's campaign manager, he was disillusioned by politics and the pair split up. Harvey went on to win the 1977 election for city supervisor. Harvey became involved with a volatile Hispanic man named Jack, and became close friends with Cleve Jones.
Even though Harvey had a local victory, he got very involved fighting California's Proposition 6, a measure to fire gay teachers and their supporters. It was promoted by Anita Bryant (who only appears in this movie in old clips - a nice touch to reinforce how passe she should be) and John Briggs, a California state senator. After months of pushing, Harvey got to debate John several times. In the run-up to the statewide vote on Prop 6, Jack committed suicide which left Harvey fairly depressed. However, after pollsters and early results made it look like Prop 6 would pass, it wound up failing by a large margin.
While he was fighting against Prop 6, Harvey tried to cultivate positive relationships with the other city supervisors. The relationship between he and newly-elected conservative supervisor Dan White was fairly contentious. After months of not getting any legislation passed, Dan resigned from the city supervisors and tried to get his job back. When he didn't get it, he smuggled himself in the city office building, and assassinated both Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk.
The movie certainly captured the grief of San Francisco following these assassinations. But these impact of these murders went way beyond San Francisco. I was 21, married, and living in Pittsburgh when I heard about them. To this day, I can't watch that famous tape of Diane Feinstein informing the public of the murders without weeping. And I had the same reaction today, at the beginning and ending of Milk. But most of Milk is one of the most vivid recreations of the '70s I've ever seen, with a performance that should win Sean Penn his second Oscar (and, maybe an supporting actor Oscar nomination for James Franco's fine performance as Scott). Emile Hirsch was good as Cleve Jones, who later went on to be an AIDS activist and create the Names Project (the AIDS Quilt).
This movie must be seen by the people least likely to see it - the people who think things like Proposition 8 are a good idea. Consenting adults deserve to live their lives as they choose, without fear of retribution.