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Overwhelmingly lauded by critics, Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biographical film Milk explores how Harvey Milk shook up the American political establishment by becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office. As the titular character, Sean Penn’s performance was hailed as an exuberant tour de force which captured perfectly the fallen politician’s devotion to advancing gay rights. Josh Brolin’s turn as Dan White, Milk’s colleague and eventual murderer, was also cited by critics as being particularly nuanced and an asset to the film. While many reviewers noted this adaptation is overly simplified when compared to the Oscar-winning documentary upon which it is based, its insight into the political machinations necessary for social change was almost universally acknowledged in the film’s reviews.

Released at the height of the battle over Proposition 8, the film resonates in a way that goes beyond simple entertainment. As noted in the majority of the reviews, Milk is a call to arms that even though some gains have been made, there is still a long way to go on the road to equality. For those rare reviewers not inclined to endorse the film, the main criticism is that it is a whitewashed account of Milk’s private life. For instance, the lack of sexuality in the film was a frustration to some reviewers who felt that the portrayal of Milk as a serial monogamist was inconsistent with Milk’s personal history as well as the highly sexualized Castro scene in which Milk lived.

Anderson, Melissa. "Milk." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. Time Out London 20 January 2009. http://www.timeout.com/london/film/milk-2008
"Partly a joyful document of San Francisco's 1970s gay movement as seen through the life and work of one local civil rights campaigner, ‘Milk' is also a memorial to a coming-together of people under one flag and a punch in the face of those who still hold back the pace of progress with initiatives like the recent Proposition 8. By making a film that's solidly political but also touchingly personal, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have achieved something similar to Larry Kramer's Aids play ‘The Normal Heart' in the mid-'80s: a story of campaigners that puts real gay relationships, and the conflict between public protest and private love, at its heart. Only this time it's the death of one man, not thousands, that colours the drama."
Biancolli, Amy. "Milk." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. Houston Chronicle 25 November 2008. http://www.chron.com/entertainment/movies/article/Milk-1612812.php
"This isn't a niche film — no more than any movie set during the genesis of a civil rights movement is a niche film. Its message isn't limited to politics or social activism, though they do eat up much of the plot. It is, at its core, an inspiring human story about an impish, charismatic man who lived and loved and fought to do both out in the open."
Bradshaw, Peter. "Milk." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. The Guardian 21 January 2009. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/jan/22/milk-film-review-gus-van-sant-sean-penn
Calling Milk a "celebratory portrait of pioneering gay activist," Bradshaw gives a largely positive review with a couple of caveats. First, he questions whether this film should have actually been a two-person biopic with equal consideration given to the character of Dan White, since it is White's complex relationship with Milk that drives the drama. Second, Bradshaw thinks the film, with its top-notch performances, feels a bit staid and that a lesser emphasis on Milk as a sad and monogamous man would have resulted in a more challenging film.
Davies, Luke. "Gus Van Sant's Milk." The Monthly March 2009. http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2009/march/1343112658/luke-davies/tales-city
In his lukewarm review, Davies applauds the film's atmosphere while noting that the story relies upon obvious signposts to foreshadow Milk's murder that leaves the film feeling oddly dispassionate. The decision to cast Milk's murder as a political assassination fueled by homophobic rage is a mistake as it elevates an already important narrative needlessly. That, combined with what Davies labels as "schmaltzy plot devices," prevents the film from being as poignant as it may have been. Researchers interested in exploring how films can needlessly utilize Hollywood conventions to create a public perception will find this review useful.
Denby, David. "True Love." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. New Yorker 1 December 2008. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2008/12/01/081201crci_cinema_denby
"In making this movie, Van Sant is forced to wrestle with the assorted pieties built into three high-minded genres: not just the bio-pic but also the fallen-martyr saga and the social-protest statement."
Ebert, Roger. "Milk." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. Chicago Sun-Times 24 November 2008. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/milk
Giving Milk one of his rare four stars, Ebert praises Sean Penn for his nuanced and detailed portrayal in bringing Harvey Milk to life on screen. The reason Milk works is because of its heroic story even as it resists turning Harvey Milk into a conventional hero. Instead, Milk is the story of "a transformed life, a victory for individual freedom over state persecution, and a political and social cause." Ebert is also enamored of the stylistic choices made by director Gus Van Sant, especially the decision to have the story unfold over a specific eight-year time span. This not only allows the events portrayed in this time to be magnified, but it also moves the film away from a simple biopic to a political statement.
Edelstein, David. "Milk is Much More Than A Martyr Movie." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. NPR 26 November 2008. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97518380
In his effusive review, Edelstein deems the portrayal of the titular activist to be remarkable for both its enthusiasm and its complete lack of affect. He argues that Milk occupies a unique space within studio films about homosexuality: "Unlike in Brokeback Mountain, the gay couplings here aren't hallowed; every smooch doesn't carry the weight of the world." Edelstein notes the lack of in-depth character subtext for most of the characters but argues that this is likely because of their real life counterparts still being alive.
Gleiberman, Owen. "Milk." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. Entertainment Weekly 25 November 2008. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20242612,00.html
Gleiberman notes that Milk immerses the viewer in the political process such that the machinations of Harvey Milk, as a politician, become central to the film's story. Whether it's using dog feces to attract the attention of new constituents to dressing in a calculated fashion to eschew queer labels, Milk is a study in political understanding fueled by a passion for justice. Suggesting Milk is more a docudrama than biopic, he points out the time the film takes to really showcase the world in which Harvey Milk operated. This helps to explain Sean Penn's characterization of Milk who believes that he isn't the story but that it's the gay rights movement that is of value. Milk is "a study of a political moment" while treating its characters as dimensional products of their time.
Hoberman, J. "Gus Van Sant's Milk Recaptures California Intolerance at Exactly the Right Time." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. Village Voice 26 November 2008. http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-11-26/film/gus-van-sant-s-milk-thinsp-recaptures-californian-intolerance-at-exactly-the-right-time/
Appreciating the simplified trajectory of Harvey Milk, Hoberman offers a positive review that details the film's importance as a history lesson to the audience. Of particular note is the way director Van Sant elects to focus on a community united. This stands in contrast to the Milk documentary, upon which the film is based, which devotes ample time to exploring Dan White's trial and the subsequent riot that erupted once the verdict was handed down. Milk works because its message is in both its story and its protagonist: "Content trumps form as communal solidarity redeems individual sacrifice."
LaSalle, Mick. "His Time. Our Story." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. San Francisco Chronicle 25 November 2008. http://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/His-time-Our-story-3183741.php
"Director Gus Van Sant uses the account of one of the country's first openly gay public officials, who was assassinated in 1978, to invest the gay rights movement with mythic grandeur, as a successor to all the heroic social protest movements in American history. Van Sant's point of view may be a matter of politics, outside the scope of a review, but his success in putting over his point of view is a question of art. His success is complete. His shaping of the material is seamless, and the images he evokes are inspiring."
Macdonald, Moira. "Milk gives a hero his due." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. Seattle Times 26 November 2008. http://seattletimes.com/html/movies/2008436295_mr26milk0.html
"Those who appreciate fine acting will be engrossed by the uniformly excellent performances in this film; those who know little about the gay-rights movement will be informed by it; those who simply want to be entertained by a well-made drama will be unable to look away."
McCarthy, Todd. "Milk." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. Variety 2 November 2008. http://variety.com/2008/film/reviews/milk-7-1200472542/
"But while 'Milk' is unquestionably marked by many mandatory scenes — the electioneering, outrage at conservative opposition, tension between domestic and public life, insider politicking, public demonstrations, et al. — the quality of the writing, acting and directing generally invests them with the feel of real life and credible personal interchange, rather than of scripted stops along the way from aspiration to triumph to tragedy. And on a project whose greatest danger lay in its potential to come across as agenda-driven agitprop, the filmmakers have crucially infused the story with qualities in very short supply today — gentleness and a humane embrace of all its characters, even of the entirely vilifiable gunman, Dan White."
Moore, Roger. "Milk." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. Orlando Sentinel 10 December 2008. http://www.orlandosentinel.com/entertainment/movies/orl-movie-review-milk,0,1494114.story
"Democracy at the street level makes for great theater. Shipyard workers in Gdansk, Poland, the newly enfranchised in Selma, Ala., or the newly liberated in Baghdad -- 'people power' is electrifying to behold. Milk, the long, long awaited bio-film of gay politician and 'community organizer' Harvey Milk, is filled with such political thrills. It's about a man who pioneered the cause, was elected to office as an openly gay man and who was martyred, just as he always predicted."
Neumaier, Joe. "Sean Penn Shines in New Gus Van Sant Biopic." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. NY Daily News 25 November 2008. http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/sean-penn-shines-new-gus-van-sant-biopic-milk-article-1.339214
Neumaier offers the rare negative review. At issue, is how the film draws upon film conventions in a way that is hackneyed and doesn't serve to highlight the emotional nuance of the film's protagonist. Without some undercurrent of sentimentality to bolster the script, the excellent performances fail to resonate as effectively as they might. Unlike the exceptional documentary upon which the film is based, the fictionalized film "is too methodical." With Sean Penn going for broke with his performance, the conventional script and directional style distracts the audience.
Puig, Claudia. "Milk and Penn are a powerful cinematic combination." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. USA Today 26 November 2008. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/movies/reviews/2008-11-25-milk-review_N.htm
"The film has particular resonance given the history-making presidential election. It is especially evocative because, as with President-elect Barack Obama, Milk's platform was built on hope. It also is timely given the outcome of Proposition 8 in California, which resulted in a ban on gay marriage."
Rainer, Peter. "Milk." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. Christian Science Monitor 28 November 2008. http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Movies/2008/1128/p25s02-almo.html
Noting that the film is "less a biopic than a call to arms," Rainer offers a tepid endorsement of Milk while also pointing out his take on the film's missed opportunities. Rainer takes exception to how the film incorporates historical footage into the film because he believes it weakens the narrative effectiveness of the fictionalized story. He points to the news footage of Dianne Feinstein reporting the deaths of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk to illustrate just how much poignancy is contained within the historical footage. The film is sapped of its vitality by the sense of impending doom that permeates the film. He praises Josh Brolin's turn as Dan White and says that his performance helps to elevate the portrayal above the oversimplified psychoanalyzing of the script.
Reed, Rex. "Milk is Great, but Would Be Even Tastier with More Penn Smooches." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. New York Observer 18 November 2008. http://observer.com/2008/11/imilki-is-great-but-would-be-even-tastier-with-more-penn-smooches/
While he takes issue with the marked lack of sexual content in the film, Reed nevertheless offers up a largely positive review. Calling it "superior ensemble acting," Reed's main criticism is that the film focuses so much on getting the biographical details right that it loses sight of his enigmatic qualities. It is a respectful film that is buoyed by the impassioned performance of Sean Penn. Yet, the plodding attention to historical detail, especially as it pertains to the political issues of the film, diminishes its emotional impact such that "the dual murder of Milk and Mayor Moscone inside City Hall by the tortured Dan White comes after such an overcrowded dossier of politics that its potential shock value is curiously blunted and bloodless."
Scott, A.O. "Freedom Fighter in Life Becomes Potent Symbol in Death." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. New York Times 26 November 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/26/movies/26milk.html?partner=Rotten%2520Tomatoes&ei=5083&_r=0
Scott offers unequivocal praise for the film, calling it "accessible and instructive, an astute chronicle of big-city politics and the portrait of a warrior whose passion was equaled by his generosity and good humor." From the lyrical directing quality of director Van Sant to the effortless performance by Penn that conveys the struggle and shame that permeated Harvey Milk's life, the film is hailed as the reviewer's favorite of the year. Scott is particularly impressed by the strength of the script and its ability to show both the pragmatism of Milk's goals and his radical discourse and methods of achieving social justice. Milk is a "multi-layered history lesson" that falls into some biopic traps, such as glossing over local politics, but overcomes those obstacles by allowing the story's nuance to unfold organically.
Stevens, Dana. "Fresh Milk." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. NY Daily News 26 November 2008. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2008/11/fresh_milk.html
"Movies about real-life good guys who we know will get it in the end tend to bend inexorably toward the arc of that fatal moment: the booth at Ford's Theater, the intersection in Dallas. It's not that Milk never falls victim to biopic-itis: Near the beginning, Van Sant provides exposition with a newspaper-headline montage detailing Milk's 1978 assassination at the hands of a fellow member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. But the film then shifts back in time to build up a character so vibrantly and specifically imagined that we forget to define Milk by his death. Which is, no doubt, how Harvey Milk would have preferred it."
Tucker, Reed. "Gus Van Sant." New York Post 23 Nov. 2008. http://nypost.com/2008/11/23/gus-van-sant/
In his interview with director Van Sant, Tucker explores the reasoning behind the creative decisions made by the filmmaker in Milk. By positioning the film within the current debate over Prop 8, the director does an effective job of explaining how the issues Harvey Milk fought for in the 1970s are just as relevant today. Tucker also questions Van Sant as to whether he believes the theory the film espouses that Dan White was a closeted homosexual, to which the director replies, "whether or not the murder was based partly on homophobia is not something I particularly believe." This interview is useful to scholars interested in the political context of the film as well as those interested in why the director chose to present a theory in the film he himself does not believe.
Turan, Kenneth. "Milk." Rev. of Milk, dir. Gus Van Sant. Los Angeles Times 26 November 2008: C1.
In his positive review, Turan says that Milk's gravitas comes not from the film itself but from the political climate in which it was released. He draws a parallel between Harvey Milk's fight against Proposition Six, which was a statewide measure to ban homosexuals from teaching in public schools, and the battle over gay marriage in the form of Proposition Eight that was raging when the film was released. The film is less a cinematic masterpiece and more a "valentine to the early days of gay rights activism." Turan argues that the film wants us to see how far we've come as a culture and still realize that it isn't far enough. The use of footage from newsreels showing men hiding their faces as they are arrested for being in gay bars is particularly moving and feeds the film's intent.