A lot of people can't stand Sean Penn. He's anathema to them, both as a person (they claim he's got an arrogant sneer and can't act) and for his robust political outspokenness on controversial social issues he should just shut his trap about, since he's, after all, just an actor with nothing better to do.
The Penn-haters (I work with a few; I'm personally Penn-neutral, like Switzerland) won't even consider watching a movie if Sean Penn's name is associated with it in any way. They've missed some good movies: Dead Man Walking and The Assassination of Richard Nixon, to name a couple. And if the movie is already left-leaning politically, as it is in Milk, the haters might even get angry with me, when I assert (as is my God-given, American right!) what a wonderful (no joke, excellent movie) cinematic experience and acting performance it was.
I think it took a complicated cat like a Sean Penn, able to shed his standard, bristling machismo and attitude and anger and angst and woodenness he brings to so many of his roles to embody instead, the sensitive and empathic and nurturing (but strong) trimmings of an openly and flamboyantly gay man - a complicated cat in his own right - like Harvey Milk. That role took guts, love Penn, or hate Penn's guts.
How did Penn get that goofy grin of Milk's down just so? And that awful late-70s hairdo! Shouldn't the hair-stylist for Sean Penn been nominated for an Oscar too? And that's just to name but a few perfect personifications of Harvey Milk that Penn pulled off. I'm not sure I could adequately describe the subtler, more nuanced components of Penn's performance/impersonation, not having seen much of Harvey Milk in person on the tube.
I remember my Dad telling me about the "Twinkie Defense" way back when, him being upset about it, describing to me how a disturbed San Francisco city supervisor, Dan White, (played chillingly by Josh Brolin) essentially got away with murder, having, in cold blood, shot both Milk and San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, execution style, for the dubious rationale (what a genius creep of a defense attorney Dan White had) of having gone on a junk food binge the night before; ergo, an acute, temporary sugar high compelled Dan White to pull the trigger...over a half-dozen times. Ridiculous defense arguments, but sadly (and absurdly) true. Dan White served only five years in prison for what today would've been criminally classified a hate crime: murdering a homosexual because of their homosexuality. A year-and-a-half after his release, Dan White committed suicide.
I also remember seeing from that dark time what now's become the iconic television clip of a shaken Diane Feinstein, literally being held up by the police chief of San Francisco, as she made the horrible announcement that Milk and Moscone had just been shot and murdered (Feinstein was first on the scene to witness the murder's aftermath of gore), and her voice, once she made the announcement, became barely audible over the anguished outcry of disbelief among city government staffers and reporters, as she stated that the suspect was her colleague, Dan White. Left a deep impression on me, to say the least.
And so when the movie came out of course I had to go see it (and have since recently bought it) and it never fails to take me high and take me low. The highs are Milk's political risings through Castro Street. Namely, how in the mid-70s, he brilliantly wheeled-and-dealed with the Teamsters (the Teamsters union!), at the time an organization as rednecked as The Dukes of Hazard, to hire gay drivers for beer transport ops, in exchange for the gay bars in the area boycotting Coors Beer (the Teamsters at the time were on strike against Coors). And the grass roots activism Milk led worked! And that's just one of Milk's earliest successes on his journey into San Francisco politics.
Later, as the movie progressively depicts, Milk ran and won a seat on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors from Dist. 5, thus becoming the first openly gay, major political figure in California (this was January 1978), a position he held for eleven months until his senseless, bizarre death, later that year on November 27th.
Was Milk perfect? No. And Milk shoots straight with Harvey's early political losses and roadblocks and personal foibles and self-destructive tendencies, his self-doubt and control-freakishness, and ruined relationships along his way to power. But did one imperfect, passionate, individual, Harvey Milk, with a big heart for politically downtrodden and oppressed people of all orientations, change (and this is not a blurb or propaganda or hyperbole, but historical fact corroborated by the gay/civil rights legislative changes he implemented and which have remained in effect since his all-too-short tenure in office) politics in California, and by extension, the United States, forever? Indeed Harvey Milk did.
Whether you're gay or straight, bisexual, asexual, the movie's great.