Maybe you don't know a damn thing about gay activist Harvey Milk. Maybe you ought to know that President elect Barack Obama isn't the only community organizer who went on to make a difference. Maybe thoughtful filmmaking, no matter how incendiary and intimate, isn't worth squat at an infantilized multiplex. Stop me now. There's really no maybe about Milk, directed with a poet's eye by Gus Van Sant from a richly detailed script by Big Love writer Dustin Lance Black. 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.
San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be voted into offi ce in America, was shot dead in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, in City Hall. Dan White, a troubled politico who had served with Harvey on the city's board of supervisors, pumped five bullets into Harvey. The crusader for gay rights in San Francisco, and the nation, was 48.
That Harvey's questing spirit not only lives but soars in this movie is a gift from Sean Penn, who plays him for real instead of for show. Penn is a lion of an actor, but the tenderness he radiates here is revelatory. Smoldering intensity wasn't Harvey's thing. A closeted Wall Street investment banker who came out politically about the same time he did sexually, Harvey disarmed people with his ready charm, his bracing intelligence and his knack for helping the disenfranchised fight back. Penn uses makeup to lengthen his nose and look more like Harvey. He adopts a New York accent to get Harvey's inflections. But the physical transformation is nothing compared to the way Penn gets at the core of the man, finding the source of his joy and pain. He disappears into Harvey with the artistry of an acting virtuoso. There's one word for Penn's performance: phenomenal.
If you want to hate on this movie, bring it on. To those who say it's ancient history since Harvey's battle is no longer an issue, I say wake up and smell the hate crimes, and the bill banning gay marriage that passed on Election Day. To those who say its focus limits its audience, I say Harvey's focus was human rights and therefore limitless. To those who say Milk is hagiography, I say Harvey is my kind of saint: a New York Jew with a screwed-up past, a lively sex life and a goal to bring the gay movement out of the shadows even if he had to be a media whore to do it.
Robert Epstein's Oscarwinning 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, memorably traced Harvey's life journey. Van Sant is hunting bigger game. He wants to show Harvey in the daring act of inventing himself. The framing device of the film involves Harvey recording his will on tape in 1977, even predicting his own assassination ("If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door"). Milk begins with Harvey's 1972 arrival in San Francisco with his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco, warmly funny and touching). That's right, Spicoli macks on the son of the Green Goblin. Harvey and Scott open a camera store on Castro Street, which soon turns into a hangout for residents and merchants ready to talk issues that range beyond sexual politics to involve unions, seniors and even dog poop. Milk is entertaining and playfully erotic in ways that reflect life instead of political agenda. But you can't miss the fire in Harvey.
It's not long before the selfproclaimed mayor of Castro Street, prodded by Cleve Jones (a sly, sensational Emile Hirsch) and other gay activists, sees public office as his next step. After two misses for the board of supervisors and one failed shot at the California State Assembly, Harvey gets elected to the board with help from lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill). Harvey also finds an important ally in Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber), who supports his war against Proposition 6 (to fire gay teachers in public schools), and homophobe singer Anita Bryant, who speaks for her toxic self in old TV interviews.
All the actors excel, notably Hirsch, Franco and Diego Luna as Jack Lira, the Mexican lover whom Harvey neglects with tragic consequences. But Josh Brolin is simply astounding as Dan White, revealing the inner torment of a man at odds with his own emotions. Sporting the calendar-ready look of a good Catholic husband and father, Dan is both repulsed by and attracted to Harvey and his gay agenda. Harvey's band of brothers tease Dan mercilessly. "Is it just me, or is he kind of cute?" says Cleve to much laughter as Harvey hints, "I think he's one of us." At a party, a drunk Dan approaches Harvey in a piercing display of yearning and isolation. It's a killer scene, intensified later by an image of Dan naked in front of a window, utterly alone. That moment does more to explain Dan's act of violence than the "Twinkie defense" (lawyers claimed Dan's intake of sugar diminished his mental capacity), which helped convict him of manslaughter instead of murder.
Van Sant, a groundbreaking director working for the fifth time with camera genius Harris Savides, gives the film a tribal vibrancy. Shooting on the streets Harvey walked in San Francisco, and blending in archival footage, they drop us into the cartwheeling culture of the 1970s with a dizzying sense of time and place.
Milk is Van Sant's best film, which is saying a lot, since his generous intelligence and unforced grace shine through whether he's sailing the mainstream (Good Will Hunting, To Die For) or riding riskier indie currents (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant). Van Sant means for his film to strike a personal chord, whether Harvey is talking a closeted teen out of suicide or talking himself into keeping up the fight when his own love life is crumbling. Harvey's words – "You gotta give 'em hope" – are carved into a bust of the populist hero that went up in May in a rotunda of San Francisco's City Hall. The movie is a more fitting memorial. It brings Harvey to life for a new generation instead of setting him in stone. Penn makes Harvey so vivid and spoiling to be heard that you want to introduce him to people. John McCain, meet a real maverick.