Gus Van Sant has never been what you'd call a risk-averse filmmaker, but he directs his Harvey Milk biopic so carefully, there might be a Ming vase balanced on his head. Van Sant's steps are deliberate, his posture is straight, his attitude is responsible, and his eyes are fixed firmly on the prize. No less cautious, Sean Penn drops his habitual banty roosterism to play Milk (1930–1978), the martyred gay activist and San Francisco supervisor, with the concentration of an actor entrusted to portray the future subject of a U.S. postage stamp.
Opening in theaters 30 years after Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were gunned down in City Hall by another supervisor, ex-cop Dan White, Van Sant's film is narrated by Milk from beyond the grave — less an exercise in fatalism than a way of giving collective history an engagingly Noo Yawk accent. Working from a detailed script by documentarian Dustin Lance Black, Van Sant streamlines Milk's life, simplifying his trajectory from closeted Wall Street zero to out-front Castro Street hero. On the eve of his 40th birthday, Milk picks up cute hippie Scott Smith (James Franco) leaving the subway and, after a romantic evening in tight close-up, effectively joins the counterculture, growing his hair and eloping with Smith to San Francisco. There, they open the Castro Camera Shop. When some cheerful canoodling prompts a local chamber of commerce type to blackball the enterprise, an activist is born: "We'll form our own business association!"
This ringing declaration serves to announce San Francisco's new gay district as an autonomous region with the Castro Camera Shop as its epicenter. It also allows the filmmakers to portray the burgeoning Castro as a function of Milk's own political development. He organizes against police harassment and, allied with progressive elements in the Teamsters' union, helps ban right-wing elixir Coors from the Castro's bars. After San Francisco's most powerful gay figure advises Harvey to simmer down, the irrepressible entrepreneur appoints himself Mayor of Castro Street, hopping an actual soapbox to capture the attention of an unruly crowd: "My fellow degenerates." Losing a run for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, Milk cuts his hair, shaves his beard, and loses again, promptly launching an equally quixotic primary challenge against local state assemblyman and future mayor Art Agnos (Jeff Koons, no less).
Scarcely less indefatigable, Penn is present in nearly every scene. His marked resemblance to Milk — hawkish profile, mask-of-comedy smile — is matched by an understanding of his gregarious character's political gifts. (Like Harvey, Penn has no difficulty milking it.) More hearty frontier settlement than drag- and disco-fueled den of depravity, the Castro blossoms in the warmth of Milk's sunny personality. A thousand flowers bloom: Abandoned by the long-suffering Smith, Milk gets a new campaign manager, self-described "tough dyke" Anne Kronenberg (pert Alison Pill); a new lover, Jack Lira (adorable Diego Luna); and, finally, a seat on the Board of Supervisors.
Happy, flirtatious, paternal, Milk was able to play politics both inside City Hall and out in the streets. San Francisco is the city Republicans love to hate, and Milk turns grandly world-historical once the campaign launched by homophobic Christian crusader and Moral Majority avatar Anita Bryant arrives in the form of Proposition 6, an initiative to purge gay teachers (and their supporters) from public schools. The new supervisor finds himself on the front line of the Culture Wars, face-to-face with evil twin Dan White (Josh Brolin).
Beleaguered personification of "family values," White is the film's most complex character, after Milk. That their death-match embodies a civil war in the American psyche is implicit in the script's suggestion that White's rage — as well as his fascination with Harvey — is fueled by repressed homosexuality. As Milk grows in stature, assembling a statewide coalition against Prop. 6, challenging the proposition's local sponsor, state Senator John Briggs, to a series of debates, White goes increasingly nuts — as does Jack and, indeed, San Francisco. White's lethal freakout came 10 days after the S.F.-based Peoples Temple imploded in Guyana.
The quintessential 21st-century Gus Van Sant movie has been a boldly experimental death-trip. Elephant and Paranoid Park both fractured chronology, Gerry and Last Days distended duration, but all revolved around young protagonists whose mortality was never less than self-evident. Milk also has a doomed protagonist, but what's experimental here is Van Sant's faith in the old-fashioned vérités: Content trumps form as communal solidarity redeems individual sacrifice. Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen's groundbreaking 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, spent a third of its length on White's murder trial, including powerful footage of the flaming riots that greeted his conviction on a lesser charge of manslaughter. Van Sant prefers to show a community together. He doesn't avert his gaze from Milk's death, but he wraps it in a comforter of last-day reconciliations, romantic flashbacks, and ethereal patriotic music. Corny as it is, Van Sant's ending still packs a wallop. Milk is so immediate that it's impossible to separate the movie's moment from this one. The 1978 victory over Prop. 6 merges with the current struggle against California's Proposition 8, overturning the state Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage. A charismatic leader has yet to emerge, but there is ... Milk, and its wholehearted devotion to the principle of equal protection under the law.
Van Sant and Black position Milk as both gutsy civil rights leader and creative community organizer — not to mention a precedent-shattering politician who, it's very often reiterated, presented himself as a Messenger of Hope. Milk is now. The ecstatic reception accorded Wall-E's visionary tikkun (and the president-elect's strategic nonsupport for same-sex marriage) notwithstanding, it's the first openly Obama-iste movie.
Here's hoping that Milk and Penn's Milk do as well in our annual fake election. When The Times of Harvey Milk won its Oscar for best documentary, presenter Kathleen Turner described it as "a film about American values in conflict." This time, the Academy won't have to be as discreet.