One of the first scenes in “Milk” is of a pick-up in a New York subway station. It’s 1970, and an insurance executive in a suit and tie catches sight of a beautiful, scruffy younger man — the phrase “angel-headed hipster” comes to mind — and banters with him on the stairs. The mood of the moment, which ends up with the two men eating birthday cake in bed, is casual and sexy, and its flirtatious playfulness is somewhat disarming, given our expectation of a serious and important movie grounded in historical events. “Milk,” directed by Gus Van Sant from a script by Dustin Lance Black, is certainly such a film, but it manages to evade many of the traps and compromises of the period biopic with a grace and tenacity worthy of its title character.
That would be Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), a neighborhood activist elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and murdered, along with the city’s mayor, George Moscone (Victor Garber), by a former supervisor named Dan White (Josh Brolin) the next year. Notwithstanding the modesty of his office and the tragic foreshortening of his tenure, Milk, among the first openly gay elected officials in the country, had a profound impact on national politics, and his rich afterlife in American culture has affirmed his status as pioneer and martyr. His brief career has inspired an opera by Stewart Wallace, an excellent documentary film (“The Times of Harvey Milk,” by Rob Epstein, from 1984) and now “Milk,” which is the best live-action mainstream American movie that I have seen this year. This is not faint praise, by the way, even though 2008 has been a middling year for Hollywood. “Milk” is accessible and instructive, an astute chronicle of big-city politics and the portrait of a warrior whose passion was equaled by his generosity and good humor. Mr. Penn, an actor of unmatched emotional intensity and physical discipline, outdoes himself here, playing a character different from any he has portrayed before.
This is less a matter of sexuality — there is no longer much novelty in a straight actor’s “playing gay” — than of temperament. Unlike, say, Jimmy Markum, Mr. Penn’s brooding ex-convict in Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” Harvey Milk is an extrovert and an ironist, a man whose expansive, sometimes sloppy self-presentation camouflages an incisive mind and a ferociously stubborn will. All of this Mr. Penn captures effortlessly through voice and gesture, but what is most arresting is the sense he conveys of Milk’s fundamental kindness, a personal virtue that also functions as a political principle.
Which is not to say that “Milk” is an easy, sunny, feel-good movie, or that its hero is a shiny liberal saint. There is righteous anger in this movie, and also an arresting, moody lyricism. Mr. Van Sant has frequently practiced a kind of detached romanticism, letting his stories unfold matter-of-factly while infusing them with touches of melancholy beauty. (He is helped here by Danny Elfman’s elegant score and by the expressive cinematography of Harris Savides, whose touch when it comes to framing and focus could more aptly be called a caress.)
In the years since the earnest and commercial “Finding Forrester” (2000), Mr. Van Sant has devoted himself to smaller-scale projects, some of them (like the Palme d’Or-winning provocation “Elephant”) employing nonprofessional actors, and none of them much concerned with soliciting the approval of the mass audience. “Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park” are linked by a spirit of formal exploration — elements of Mr. Van Sant’s experimental style include long tracking shots; oblique, fractured narratives; and a way of composing scenes that emphasizes visual and aural texture over conventional dramatic exposition — and also by a preoccupation with death.
Like “Elephant” (suggested by the Columbine High shootings) and “Last Days” (by the suicide of Kurt Cobain), “Milk” is the chronicle of a death foretold. Before that subway station encounter, we have already seen real-life news video of the aftermath of Milk’s assassination, as well as grainy photographs of gay men being rounded up by the police. These images don’t spoil the intimacy between Harvey the buttoned-up businessman and Scott Smith (James Franco), the hippie who becomes his live-in lover and first campaign manager. Rather, the constant risk of harassment, humiliation and violence is the defining context of that intimacy.
And his refusal to accept this as a fact of life, his insistence on being who he is without secrecy or shame, is what turns Milk from a bohemian camera store owner (after his flight from New York and the insurance business) into a political leader.
“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.” That was an opening line that the real Milk often used in his speeches to break the tension with straight audiences, but the film shows him deploying it with mostly gay crowds as well, with a slightly different inflection. He wants to recruit them into the politics of democracy, to persuade them that the stigma and discrimination they are used to enduring quietly and even guiltily can be addressed by voting, by demonstrating, by claiming the share of power that is every citizen’s birthright and responsibility.
The strength of Mr. Black’s script is that it grasps both the radicalism of Milk’s political ambition and the pragmatism of his methods. “Milk” understands that modern politics thrive at the messy, sometimes glorious intersection of grubby interests and noble ideals. Shortly after moving with Scott from New York to the Castro section of San Francisco, Milk begins organizing the gay residents of that neighborhood, seeking out allies among businessmen, labor unions and other groups.
The city’s gay elite, discomfited by his confrontational tactics, keeps Milk at a distance, leaving him to build a movement from the ground up with the help of a young rabble-rouser and ex-hustler named Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch).
For more than two lively, eventful hours, “Milk” conforms to many of the conventions of biographical filmmaking, if not always to the precise details of the hero’s biography. Milk’s inexhaustible political commitment takes its toll on his relationships, first with Scott and then with Jack Lira, an impulsive, unstable young man played by Diego Luna with an operatic verve that stops just short of camp.
Meanwhile, local San Francisco issues are overshadowed by a statewide anti-gay-rights referendum and the national crusade, led by the orange-juice spokesmodel Anita Bryant, to repeal municipal antidiscrimination laws. The culture war is unfolding, and Milk is in the middle of it. (And so, 30 years later, in the wake of Proposition 8, is “Milk.”)
“Milk” is a fascinating, multi-layered history lesson. In its scale and visual variety it feels almost like a calmed-down Oliver Stone movie, stripped of hyperbole and Oedipal melodrama. But it is also a film that like Mr. Van Sant’s other recent work — and also, curiously, like David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” another San Francisco-based tale of the 1970s — respects the limits of psychological and sociological explanation.
Dan White, Milk’s erstwhile colleague and eventual assassin, haunts the edges of the movie, representing both the banality and the enigma of evil. Mr. Brolin makes him seem at once pitiable and scary without making him look like a monster or a clown. Motives for White’s crime are suggested in the film, but too neat an accounting of them would distort the awful truth of the story and undermine the power of the movie.
That power lies in its uncanny balancing of nuance and scale, its ability to be about nearly everything — love, death, politics, sex, modernity — without losing sight of the intimate particulars of its story. Harvey Milk was an intriguing, inspiring figure. “Milk” is a marvel.