It's the 1970s, and across America, homosexuals are still subject to persecution and likely to be arrested if caught 'cruising'. In New York City, on the verge of his 40th birthday, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) begins a relationship with young Scott Smith (James Franco), confessing to him that he feels he has done very little with his life. When the two drift across the country together and end up living in San Francisco, Milk finally finds his calling as he becomes involved in gay activism, organising boycotts of businesses that actively discriminate against homosexuals. As the gay community faces harassment from the police in retaliation for the boycotts, Milk realises that the only way he can make a difference is by entering politics officially. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, Milk becomes the first openly gay man in the US to be elected to public office, winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. When he clashes with troubled colleague Dan White (Josh Brolin), however, a tragic chain of events are set into motion that will nevertheless lead to Milk become an enduring icon for the gay rights movement.
Sean Penn delivers the performance of his career in this stirring account of Milk's singularly courageous crusade. Director Gus Van Sant, who has dealt with gay subject matter before in films such as Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho, brings a light touch to the film, highlighting Milk's winning charisma and unerring sense of humour, turning what is essentially a tragedy into an uplifting tale of bravery and selfbelief.
While Penn picked up a second Oscar for his wonderfully endearing performance, the principal cast are equally memorable, particularly Franco, who finally seems to be finding roles that make the most of his hitherto undiscovered abilities. Making Milk's story accessible to an audience that may have little or no previous interest in the gay rights movement, Van Sant has created an enjoyable, moving and inspiring movie about an oft-overlooked facet of America's civil rights history.