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The Oscars 2009 – A short review: Milk

img  Claudia Lindner

Sean Penn usually is known by his personification of rather serene, if not cynical characters in the tradition of Robert de Niro. But in this movie, we see Penn as the optimistic, idealistic gay rights-activist Harvey Milk, who is endowed with an almost child-like surgency and a pleasing friendliness toward his fellow men. His belief in  political action to achieve change and his ability to inspire others find an expression in Sean Penn's characterization and foreshadows the charismatic person the real Harvey Milk must have been. The longer the movie is going on, the more one forgets that it's actually Sean Penn you are watching there, which is probably the best thing to be said about an actor's performance.

Fortunately, not only the leading part, but also the supporting roles are excellently casted. Emile Hirsch who has been starring in Penn's movie „Into the Wild“, here playing the part of Milk's co-activist Cleve Jones, or Alison Pill as Milk's lesbian campaign manager Ann Kronenberg deliver an outstanding performance. Both friends of Harvey Milk have a cameo appearance in van Sant's movie, a fact, which links the past and the real historical events with the present and thereby once again illustrating the currentness of Harvey Milk's matters.

Last but not least, Josh Brolin's performance as the emotionally disturbed assassin Dan White is a true-to-life portrayal of a hateful reactionary. Van Sant neither demonizes this person by portraying him as the beast, nor provides excuses for him. He shows why and how it could had come this far with Dan White, but that in the end White's deed is shown as what it was: a cold blooded murder driven by hate.

The supporting actors' performances prevent the movie from being a one-man-show as it is the case with so many other biopics where supporting roles only make for pale prompters.

Van Sant's movie draws a lot upon Rob Epstein's documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" from 1985, a fact which Van Sant always admitted and which was credited at the end of his movie. Many facts and backgrounds Van Sant wouldn't have been able to use to tell the genuine story in "Milk" without Epstein's work.

Epstein's documentary drew a rather differentiated image of Harvey Milk's personality, also showing less sympathetic traits of character like his vanity or his irascibility as well as his amiability, and so gives us the complete image in an overall context. Van Sant's movie on the other hand has more of a heroic epos to remind future generations of a brave and charismatic person who died for his beliefs.

In terms of the spirit of his movie, it's impressive how much van Sant manages to revive the world of the 1970s. Watching „Milk“, one can plunge into San Francisco of these years where everything seemded to make sense: that political activism is not only necessary, but as natural as standing up in the morning. That the commitment and protests of many can change something in the end.

Van Sant realizes the awareness of many politicized people of the 1970s for today's audience who might not care or even take the commitment of Milk and his friends for ridiculous. And from a present point of view, there is indeed a lot politicizing and agitating going on which van Sant expects the audience to put up with.

But although the movie indulges itself in the 1970s, it never looses its current relevance. There are still influential conservative political powers in the present who deny civil rights for gays and lesbians as it was tried to do with the Proposition 6, the amendment of the San Francisco city ordinance which would have made it possible to  lay off city employees, teachers or educators legally only because of their sexual orientation. In California, only just those powers managed to overturn a gay marriage act.

So the message the movie communicates, if any, is that the fight for civil rights for lesbian and gays and other minorities, which Harvey Milk fought at the risk of his life, is far away from being won yet. But van Sant doesn't leave the audience with this rather pessimistic prospect as he also shows us the way the fight can be won. Harvey Milk successfully linked gay and lesbian rights with the rights of other minorities and underprivileged social groups in his campaign to stop the passage of the anti-gay Proposition 6. He showed that civil rights are universal and the gay and lesbian civil rights movement exemplary, while he managed to form political coalitions with other minority groups in his ward which was Milk's merit.


Original title: Milk

USA, 2008

Director: Gus van Sant

Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, Alison Pill, Kelvin Yu, James Franco and others

Production: Focus Features, Axon Films, Groundswell Productions, Jinks/Cohen Comapny, Sessions Payroll Management

Distribution: Constantin Film

Official website:

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