The film had a star-studded cast, beginning with Sean Penn who gave us a vivid and beautiful portrayal of Harvey Milk. Although not exactly the spitting image of Harvey Milk, Sean Penn arguably did everything in his power to convince the audience he was Harvey Milk.
Milk's first partner Scott Smith was played by the handsome James Franco. Emile Hirsch and Joseph Cross did a great job as Harvey's friends and fellow activists Cleve Jones and Dick Pabich. Mayor George Moscone was played by veteran actor Victor Garber.
The film is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, but it didn't feel long at all. The pacing and editing were very well done to maintain the important details while keeping the story moving. I loved how they mixed in TV news coverage and Anita Bryant interviews from the 70s into the movie. Since I was a teenager in the 70s it was fun to see the clothing and hairstyles I remembered.
I felt a little guilty for 'learning' so much about Harvey Milk in this film. From a historical perspective the film really tells the facts about what it was like for gay men in the 70s. It chronicled the reign of hatred and discrimination that Anita Bryant helped many states add to their legislation. But this film is not a documentary; its a story of courage.
I think it is particularly hard for straight actors to play gay characters without overdoing it. In their quest for realism and not wanting to downplay the characters' homosexuality, straight actors often go overboard with the lisping and waving of the weak wrist. But not in this film. Gay men are certainly not all alike, but the straight actors portraying gay characters in this film did so with more integrity than I've ever seen. This kept the characters from becoming cliches. Now, I'm not saying I like my gay characters to appear straight. Far from it! I'm just saying that these characters seemed like real people I might know, rather than the overdone stereotypes we sometimes see in films.
Despite all the actors (presumably) being straight, the film did not shy away from male/male kissing, tasteful nudity, and scenes that insinuated sex. They belonged in the film, and in my opinion they appeared in the correct measure and in the correct places. These scenes are important, as they showed Harvey wasn't an asexual activist, he was a GAY activist. He went from camera store owner to city supervisor in order to make San Francisco a safe and welcoming place for gays and lesbians to live.
Although it will never happen, I'd like to see Harvey Milk added to the list of revered civil rights activists like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. that kids learn about in school, for indeed, Harvey Milk was an exceptional civil rights hero.