Close to a year ago, I had never heard the name "Harvey Milk". "The first openly gay man elected to public office", as the media dubbed him, had managed to escape my attention for all those years. While many famous martyrs (e.g. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Mohandas Ghandi etc.) are firmly stuck in my consciousness, Harvey Milk apparently wasn't famous enough to warrant any attention from the Belgian press/TV/radio. A possible explanation : Belgium, while not the most progressive country in the world, doesn't have grave issues with homosexuals : they can marry, they can live together and they won't be closely watched and followed during a walk in the park. You could say they are treated equally, but then again, they are not yet allowed to adopt a child. Time will tell what Belgium has up its sleeve for the queer.

Milk, then. The new Gus Van Sant movie. Prior to this movie, I had only seen Good Will Hunting (excellent flick) and Elephant. The latter was my favourite of the year 2003, because of its thought-provoking narrative elements, cunning cinematography and talented actors. A well-deserved Palme d'Or, me reckons. After a string of experiments (Last Days, Paranoid Park), Van Sant returns to the more conventional cinematic approach of Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester.

Sean Penn is extremely good. He could have easily made his performance a caricature of the real Milk, but what he does here borders on the genius. The way he slightly moves his hands while making a point, the movement of his mouth (a combination of grinning and hesitating) ... it's incredible. Watching Penn is better than going to an acting school. Just watch the man and you'll learn a lot about character development. Needless to add, a well-deserved Academy Award. I haven't seen The Wrestler (as such, I can't compare) and I wish Mickey Rourke all the best with his rejuvenated career. I loved the dedication Penn gave Rourke during his acceptance speech : "Mickey Rourke rises again, and he is my brother."

Lest I forget, the entire cast truly shines. James Franco, of whom I have only seen the three Spider-Man pictures, is a fantastic counterpart to Sean Penn. Humble, relaxed, sweet and supportive, his Scott Smith is better than anything he ever showcased in the webspinner's outings. Emile Hirsch, critically acclaimed for Into The Wild & critically panned for Speed Racer, is just as good. He plays Cleve Jones, a very gay character who will become one of Milk's most valued supporters.

Josh Brolin, while being one of my favourite actors alive, is very good as the tormented, troubled Dan White. But he never rivals the mastery of Franco or Hirsch. The idea of a Goonie winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar is great, but I think the other two were more worthy of an Academy nod. Then again, he had no chance of winning. Congratulations with your statuette, Heath Ledger. It's the award you should have won for Brokeback Mountain.

During the credits, Van Sant shows us images of the actors, followed by an image of their real-life counterpart. It struck me how extremely well the casting directors did their job. Every likeness is spot-on.

It needs no further saying that Milk is a must. If you're a conservative bobo, don't be scared off by the thought of seeing two men kiss. Milk is a sublime slice of cinema.

Julian De Backer, 8 March 2009