Because this is a matter of recent history, Harvey Milk's death is announced at the very beginning of the movie. What follows is the story of how he came to be where he was and what transpired before he was shot. He had received death threats, as does anyone in the public eye, but this prompted his recorded autobiography, which also serves as a voiceover for the film.

We watch him migrate to San Francisco, a middle-aged New Yorker, accompanied by Scott Smith, his partner, both professional and personal. They open a camera and film shop on Castro Street, which quickly becomes a Mecca for gays who are routinely beaten and sometimes killed for their "offense" of living. As Milk becomes more and more incensed, he begins to rally friends, customers and neighbors; they begin to formally protest the treatment of gays. Eventually this segues into politics, where he hopes to make a difference.

His three failed political campaigns teach him vital rules for success: he cuts his hair, shaves his beard and learns to dress like the business man he is, rather than like a hippie; he learns to bring in campaign professionals who know how to obtain necessary things, like newspaper endorsements; one of his opponents tells him that his speeches seem like a hopeless litany of wrongs, so he has the audacity to introduce "Hope" into his appearances.

Milk was eventually victorious because the city had to re-draw its political districts and the new boundary they ratified encircled the area where he had his highest percentage of support. This is the most animated anyone gets in the entire movie. The nuts and bolts of political campaigns are not the stuff of exciting cinema, but in this case they are necessary.

  • Sean Penn ("Mystic River" and "The Interpreter") is the eponymous Harvey Milk, mildly effeminate, a touch of New York in his speech, a man who is not physically attractive, but who develops a winning public persona.
  • James Franco (the "Spiderman" franchise and "Pineapple Express") continues to impress me with his range. This time he is Scott Smith, Milk's partner until he finally runs out of patience because his home is constantly overrun by political activists; he reluctantly moves out.
  • Emile Hirsch ("Speed Racer" and "Into the Wild") is a street hustler recently moved to San Francisco from Phoenix, who becomes a highly efficient campaign worker for Milk, developing a telephone "tree" that enables them to generate throngs of people on the street whenever they are needed.
  • Victor Garber (LOTS of television work, including "Alias") plays Mayor Moscone, eventually persuaded by Milk not to reinstate Dan White, who had recently resigned his commissioner position, but then changed his mind.
  • Josh Brolin ("No Country for Old Men" and "W.") is Dan White of notorious "Twinkie Defense" fame. In real life, Dan was eventually convicted of manslaughter and spent a token amount of time in jail; he later committed suicide.

Milk's focus was on anti-discrimination: not just gays, but blacks, Asians, elderly, handicapped, etc. I remember the rampant gay-bashing here in Seattle. I don't say it's gone, but there is far less than there was... It's interesting that California, despite its progress for diversity, voted against gay marriage. After the results were overturned by the courts as unconstitutional, they voted again in November 2008 and again went on record as opposed to gay marriage. I read one article by a gay man who said, "Inch by inch... We ARE making headway. Do not despair... Look at how far we've come!"