Films about famous figures can be difficult to pull off. Too syrupy and they risk being considered lightweight. Too critical and people might think the director has a grudge against their subject. Thankfully, clinic Gus Van Sant nails the genre in his story of the life of gay rights activist and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office, Harvey Milk.

Sean Penn deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of the soft-spoken but doggedly determined Milk. He imbues the man with dignity and true charisma and never becomes a caricature. Harvey Milk strove for rights for the gay community in the often hostile America of the 1970s. Conservatives hated him and he received frequent death threats and hate mail. This didn’t cow him but rather spurred him on, and he was elected Supervisor in San Francisco. One notable case Milk campaigned against was an act which would see homosexual teachers, and those who supported them, fired from their jobs. Thankfully, this act was overturned and was a major victory for Milk.

Penn is not the only star in this film. James Franco, rocking a rather dubious afro, is sensitive and immensely likeable as Milk’s lover, Scott. Emile Hirsch is vibrant and charming as Cleve Jones, a member of Milk’s dedicated and loyal campaign team. They are excellent supporting characters but it is Penn who truly shines. Even his nuanced facial expressions are measured and convincing. Milk could be stubborn and sometimes forgot the people who mattered; nobody likes a perfect, flawless hero. Milk had flaws, but he was an honourable man and he really believed he was doing the right thing. The film effectively uses archive footage of gay men being arrested in bars, interspersed with recreations of gay men being beaten by policemen for holding hands with their partners. It is a reminder of the bigotry that was rife in ‘70s America, when being gay could cost a person their life. There is a poignant scene in the film when a young man calls Harvey. He is in the throes of despair and says his parents think he is abnormal and plan to try to get the gay out of him. Milk assures this despondent man that there is nothing wrong with him and urges him to move to one of the major cities, where he has a chance of being accepted more openly. It is a mark of Milk’s compassion and sympathetic nature.

Of course, a good film would be nothing without a slimy villain. Josh Brolin takes this role as Supervisor Dan White. He has an uneasy relationship with Milk throughout and ultimately shoots Milk dead in 1978. It is not ruining the plot to mention this, as the film opens with archive footage of a news reporter stating that Milk has been assassinated. Harvey Milk knew that he was a potential target, and so the structure of the film sees Sean Penn as Milk recording his life story, and we see the tale unfold through flashbacks. I was moved to tears by the end of the film and this is proof of Penn’s triumph in bringing this heroic man to life on the big screen.

Ireland has had its own prejudices against gay people in the past, it is worth noting. However, like in America, things have changed a lot since the ‘70s. It is welcome news to know that the government are planning to hold a referendum on gay marriage in 2015. In colleges across the country, LGBT societies make students who might feel alone feel accepted and loved. In America, many states have made gay marriage legal. It is something which Harvey Milk would undoubtedly be very proud of.

If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” – Harvey Milk