Universal acclaim - based on 39 Critics

Critic score distribution:
  1. Positive: 38 out of 39
  2. Negative: 0 out of 39
  1. 100
    Sean Penn never tries to show Harvey Milk as a hero, and never needs to. He shows him as an ordinary man, kind, funny, flawed, shrewd, idealistic, yearning for a better world.
  2. With Milk, a great San Francisco story becomes a great American story.
  3. 100
    It's a total triumph, brimming with humor, heart, sexual heat, political provocation and a crying need to stir things up, just like Harvey did. If there's a better movie around this year, with more bristling purpose, I sure as hell haven't seen it.
  4. Reviewed by: Perry Seibert
    Harvey Milk embodied the concept that "all politics is personal," and by presenting the famed Mayor of Castro Street's personal and public lives with such clarity and empathy, Van Sant has made something very rare in Hollywood -- a genuinely powerful political film that works equally well as a story of personal triumph.
  5. 100
    Harvey Milk was an intriguing, inspiring figure. Milk is a marvel.
  6. 100
    By nearly every measure, Milk is a beautifully made, far less conventional movie biography than most.
  7. 100
    Smiling more than in all of his movies since "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" combined, Penn goes way deep and soulful in a highly ingratiating performance that's the one to beat for the Best Actor Oscar.
  8. 100
    What makes Milk extraordinary isn't just that it's a nuanced, stirring portrait of one of the 20th century's most pivotal figures, but that it's also a nuanced, stirring portrait of the thousands of people he energized.
  9. Reviewed by: Dana Stevens
    Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black pull off something very close to magic. They make a film that's both historically precise and as graceful, unpredictable, and moving as a good fiction film--that is to say, a work of art.
  10. Reviewed by: Richard Corliss
    Three decades ago, Milk and his ilk were able to enlist President Jimmy Carter and future President Ronald Reagan in the gay fight against Prop. 6. But this fall, Barack Obama was all but mute on Prop. 8. Some community organizers, like the President-elect, are more cautious than others. It's a shame Harvey Milk wasn't around to recruit him.
  11. A fascinating film -- more docudrama than biopic.
  12. Though it's unflinching in its depiction of homosexual affection, the marvel of the movie is the dexterity with which it transcends the specificity of its characters and gay theme to be a universal human statement and profound political epic.
  13. The film is superbly crafted, covering huge amounts of time, people and the zeitgeist without a moment of lapsed energy or inattention to detail.
  14. 90
    Milk is a rowdy anthem of triumph, brought to an abrupt halt by Milk's personal tragedies and the unfathomable moral chaos of Dan White.
  15. Reviewed by: Bob Mondello
    What sets this film entertainingly apart from most civil-rights sagas, though, are a slew of relaxed, offhandedly persuasive performances, along with the flamboyance of hippie-era San Francisco.
  16. Reviewed by: Claudia Puig
    Penn's Oscar-caliber transformation is breathtaking, and the saga of one man's fight for human rights is engrossing.
  17. The story of Harvey Milk is a tragedy, but not since Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" has Sean Penn played such a serenely happy individual.
  18. 88
    Milk feels like an important picture, but not in a way that makes it tedious to watch. There's no pretentious sheen to the proceedings.
  19. 88
    It's not a great movie, but it is an enlivening and unusual one: an effervescent political film that also packs a knockout punch.
  20. Whatever you think of gay people (or politicians), you may find the movie compelling viewing.
  21. Reviewed by: Todd McCarthy
    Brolin's work is superlatively expressive of the inchoate impulses roiling inside his sorry character. But good as most of the cast is, the show belongs squarely to Penn.
  22. 80
    Milk is so immediate that it's impossible to separate the movie's moment from this one.
  23. 80
    Milk is good enough, thanks mostly to Penn's uncanny evocation, to bring Harvey Milk alive as a vital and highly relevant figure, rather than a distant political abstraction or gay saint. (He very definitely was neither.)
  24. More than acting, though, Penn's performance is a marvelous act of empathy in a movie that, for all its surprisingly conventional style, measures up to its stirring subject.
  25. Reviewed by: David Ansen
    How you feel about Milk may depend on whether you've seen Rob Epstein's great, Oscar-winning 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk." Van Sant's movie lacks that film's shattering emotional impact. (Rage is not a color in the director's palette.) For those coming to Milk's story for the first time, however, this will be a rousing experience.
  26. Reviewed by: Colin Kennedy
    Milk thoroughly deserves all of the press ink that will doubtless be spilt over it. Wear your 'Vote Penn' Oscar pin with pride.
  27. The deeply heartfelt Milk is more of a surface skim: a fairly standard biopic – if a very fine one, indeed – but never the transcendent work one would have hoped from the filmmaker or his subject.
  28. 75
    It's a testament to Van Sant's way with actors that the performances are better than the lines and that the film tugs undeniably at the heart as the awful finale falls. But a lack of poetry and freshness in the writing nags.
  29. A worthy docudrama that is solid if not sublime. But, sometimes, a merely good film can brush up against greatness, and this one does so twice – in Sean Penn's magnetic performance and in the cautionary tale's contemporary resonance.
  30. 75
    As good as it is depicting his career, Milk doesn't fare quite as well as a portrait of the man himself.
  31. For its mesmerizing first two-thirds, Van Sant keeps the film tightly focused on his subject, superbly played by Penn and intimately shot, home-movie style, by Harris Savides. But when the director pulls back to detail Harvey Milk's fight against gay backlash, Milk gets derailed. And - dare I say it? - didactic.
  32. Milk is an agitprop fantasy about the selflessness of sainthood. If anybody but Penn was playing the saint, we'd probably feel as if we were being sold a bill of goods. Instead, he just about pulls it off. Such is the treachery of talent.
  33. Reviewed by: Stuart Levine
    Beyond Milk, few of the other characters are given much to do.
  34. Milk is one of the most heartfelt portraits of a politician ever made--the man himself remains just out of reach.
  35. There's nothing terribly wrong with Milk, it's just that its celebration of a culture and a neighborhood, its valentine to the early days of gay rights activism, is mostly more conventional than compelling.
  36. 70
    Milk is steeped in the street-level details of acquiring and applying power, and a few early episodes show how clearly Milk understood the economic component.
  37. Reviewed by: Scott Mendelson
    A fine character study and a solid look at a specific political movement and a certain time and place.
  38. 67
    It's a little disappointing to see Van Sant dial back into mainstream respectability. Had he evoked Harvey Milk's life with the poetry that he did Kurt Cobain's, Milk might have been something special.
  39. The final result somehow undersells a man whose life and death were watershed moments in the gay rights movement.
User Score

Generally favorable reviews- based on 289 Ratings

User score distribution:
  1. Positive: 78 out of 103
  2. Negative: 17 out of 103
  1. DerekW.
    Feb 28, 2009
    Mixed with actual footage from the time, this movie recounts the incredible achievement and sudden murder of a charismatic and really Mixed with actual footage from the time, this movie recounts the incredible achievement and sudden murder of a charismatic and really determined homosexual man, thrust into activism by his personal experience of American homophobia, fear-fuelled religious bigotry and ignorance. The story should give everyone with a keen sense of injustice and the power to communicate, the hope to persevere. Harvey Milk's message is most cogently communicated in landmark live debates and public speeches that invoke the Constitution of the United States, and the Statue of Liberty dedication, two cornerstones of democracy that underpin the struggle for freedom of other oppressed demographics in the United States. I was struck by the performance of Sean Penn and his unbelievably hot on-screen boyfriend James Franco. Penn and script writer Dustin Black won Oscars for this movie, and I believe that will contribute significantly to this movie's longevity. It is mainly of interest to those who, like myself, have lived through the dark ages when homosexuality resulted in discrimination, disenfranchisement, imprisonment, violence, ostracism from family and condemnation by The Church. Given that homosexuals are a minority, it will never be a blockbuster, but to us and our families and to historians of curiosity, it is a milestone accomplishment. Speaking for myself, I felt compelled to support this movie even though it is a very painful experience to relive those horrible days, and surprised myself by my immersion in the story, even laughing out loud at some of its lighter moments. Full Review »
  2. Steve
    Dec 8, 2008
    The performance that Sean Penn gives is very good. You could tell when watching the movie that Sean Penn was truly dedicated to playing the The performance that Sean Penn gives is very good. You could tell when watching the movie that Sean Penn was truly dedicated to playing the role of Harvey Milk. He totally immersed himself into the lead character acting with strong conviction, absolute confidence and complete believability. Full Review »
  3. Adam
    Dec 6, 2008
    Milk is one of those rare movies that tries to be many things, and succeeds at all of them. This is a film that can provoke change, open Milk is one of those rare movies that tries to be many things, and succeeds at all of them. This is a film that can provoke change, open eyes, and change lives. I know it changed mine. Full Review »