Gay gay gay.
Milk is an appropriately gay name for the flamboyantly bubbly gay man that is Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist who became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the history of the universe when he was elected to the Board of Supervisors in-- where else-- San Francisco.
The idea is that your heart should be inspired by this marginalized homosexual valiantly overcoming adversity. Is it working? Let me dampen your spirits though: His electoral win was largely due a 1976 change in election rules, when San Francisco decided to choose supervisors from districts rather than a city-wide vote. Milk's district was the fruitiest district of America's most liberal city, so basically the only constituents he had to convince were the hippies and the gays. His closest opponent was another gay man.
The highlight of his political career is his campaign against an initiative to ban homosexuals from schools. As Supervisor he crosses paths with Dan White, a social conservative who doesn't seem to be a bigot but has a difficult working relationship with Milk. I don't think it's a spoiler for me to say that Milk is assassinated by White, and indeed the movie gets this out of the way by announcing it through news footage at the very beginning.
I feel like I'm using the word "gay" too much. Yeah, well, this movie is very gay. Super gay. And if even if you think you'd be ok with that, the first half of Milk will test your limits. It has a sort of claustrophobic atmosphere, trapped in this unworldly bubble where all the gays are wildly promiscuous, and everyone is gay. With the exception of the mayor, all the straight people with screen time are portrayed as villainous crusaders against the gay.
Despite supposedly being an inspiration, Harvey Milk doesn't seem like that much of a nice guy either. He picks up bozos from the streets to have casual bedroom rendezvous that turn into shallow long term relationships. His political stands use strawman arguments and logical cloudiness. And honestly he was kind of a dick to Dan White. What's annoying is that, despite the movie portraying all of this, he's still painted as a saint.
Sean Penn is a great actor, and in this movie he acts nothing like Sean Penn, and it's just annoying. He puts out a great performance but it's not fun to watch. Just like in I Am Sam, he puts out this nasally whine that haunts my ears well after the movie ended.
Despite its technical achievement, the whole movie just seemed disingenuous to me. Like it was trying to find a cohesive narrative where one didn't really exist. Milk wasn't even assassinated because he was gay, it was just because of some frivolous politics.
Roger Ebert called Milk the best movie of the year. His opinions are always worth listening to, but as for this... Ehh. I don't get it.