By Leah Rozen Scott Huver
December 01, 2008 12:00 PM

Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco | R |


Dominated by a towering performance by Penn as politician Harvey Milk, the first out gay person elected to major office in the U.S., Milk tells a stirring and timely story. The movie traces the small businessman’s political and personal journey from the closet to city hall—he was elected to San Francisco’s board of supervisors in 1977—to his untimely death in 1978, when Milk was gunned down by a political opponent (Brolin).

In a performance as subtle as it is affecting, Penn is careful to show us Milk the man rather than just milking him as a symbol. His Milk is a cunning charmer, one steadfast in his beliefs but wily and pragmatic in his methods of advancing the cause. (Milk’s political success came at a price: His personal life suffered when lovers, played here by Franco and Diego Luna, grew weary of playing second fiddle to protest rallies.) At a time when gay rights have again become a hot-button issue, director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) uses Milk to movingly remind us that change is never easy, nor quickly accomplished.