Oscar-nominated Milk is one of those worthy political films that comes out every year or so, just in time for the awards season. Looking both at the significance of these trailblazing leaders of men as well as the person behind the image, they tend to document a difficult time which ends in a bittersweet triumph which should remind us both of how hard times were and give us hope from the future. In this sense, Milk is not especially original. It is, however, a beautifully made and lovingly produced example of this format.

The politician under scrutiny is the first openly-gay elected official in San Francisco, Harvey Milk. A leading campaigner for gay rights and, by all accounts, a warm and intelligent man he brought the issue of gay rights to the fore and did much for the cause during his time in office. Harvey Milk was sadly assassinated by an angry political opponent. This combination of vibrant political successes and the tragic fate of Milk makes for a poignant story.

The movie is beautifully shot, and captures the sense of time and place perfectly. It even cleverly interweaves contemporary news reports to give a  feeling of authenticity without driving the 'period' aspect home too heavily. But what stands out above all else is the acting. Sean Penn recreates Harvey Milk with a sensitivity and intimacy that is a real marvel to behold. He gives his all to the role and it pays dividends. The role of Dan White, Milk's political peer and eventual assassin, had also landed Josh Brolin a well-deserved nomination for best supporting actor. With minimal screen time Brolin manages to convey the seething mass of frustration and anger that characterised White, a man in a political maelstrom in which he felt distinctly marginalised. Each time he graced the screen, Brolin crackled with pent-up aggression to such a degree that by the end of the movie it was his character who had become most intriguing.

Overall this is a movie whose production values and acting quality along make it worth watching. The predictable plot which charts all of the expected key moments in the life of an important political figure gives us a neat, carefully constructed picture that I would suggest does justice to Milk himself. Nonetheless it lacks depth of insight, and refuses to question Milk in a way that would give a more well-rounded view of events (for example the fact he did not come out before he moved to San Francisco, as well as his political pragmatism and personal promiscuity). A great Oscar-focussed film, but not the instant classic some critics would have us believe.

Milk at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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