As his political influence expanded to the point where the title "Mayor of Castro Street" was no longer a boast but a simple description, and as he marched toward a martyrdom he had come to see as predestined, the first openly gay politician in the nation opened his speeches with a little joke that wasn't a joke: "My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you." Thirty years after Milk the man was assassinated in San Francisco's City Hall, his signature line is repeated at every watershed moment of Milk the movie—not only because it is clever, and stirring, but because it serves as a declaration of intent for director Gus Van Sant and actor Sean Penn, who have gambled that they can sway public feeling by uniting the two meanings of the word "gay" in one engaging personality.
It's a timely venture. Three weeks ago, as the nation voted overwhelmingly to place in the land's highest office a minority politician who spoke incessantly of "hope" and "change" and other inspirational, past-shattering slogans, the electorate in California—Harvey Milk's progressive promised land—threw their support to Proposition 8, a gay-marriage ban. For many homosexual citizens, these clashing results were like discovering that America had thrown a giant block party, and segregated the queers to stand under a tree populated by incontinent pigeons. What to do when the country is celebrating new promise while shitting on you? Start by watching this movie, with its central scene of Harvey explaining how to defeat another Golden State anti-gay measure, Proposition 6: "People vote for us 2-to-1 if they know just one of us." Milk is a letter of introduction.
So gone are Van Sant's stylistic indulgences: the drifting clouds, the languid camera, the pretty little boys with eyes like Precious Moments dolls. Instead, there is only the straightforward story of a man who understood the power of ingratiating energy—of making those who don't like you accept you, making those who accept you like you, and making those who like you follow you to the seat of authority. Milk isn't just a movie about a winning man but a movie about a man who taught people how to win. It has the giddy velocity of discovering your own strength—like the opening wall-climbs of Spider-Man transferred to politics.
Credit Van Sant for knowing when to get out of his own way, and Penn for knowing how to get out of the way of his role. Even in his most lauded performances, Penn has displayed an irksome narcissism, never missing a chance to draw attention to his craftsmanship with a glower or a howl. The character of Harvey Milk presents further temptations to showboat—Sean Penn is flamboyant! Sean Penn kisses a man!—and with the exception of one crying jag, the actor sidesteps them all. Notice how this review has talked so much about Harvey Milk, and so little about Sean Penn? That's the best compliment I can pay.
The rest of the cast is uniformly stellar: James Franco continues his renaissance as Harvey's lover, Josh Brolin disappears into another pitiable lunkhead as gunman Dan White, and Emile Hirsch joins two relative unknowns—Joseph Cross and High School Musical's resident closet case, Lucas Grabeel—as the Milk for Supervisor brain trust. Their strategic meetings carry the feel of an episode of The West Wing—actually, the whole movie, written by wunderkind Dustin Lance Black, has a definite Aaron Sorkin vibe—except that the campaign managers seem unusually smitten with their man. That's as it should be. An early scene in the movie—possibly Milk's best—watches Penn and Franco making out on the sidewalk outside their Castro camera shop, and this very public display of affection rouses a boys' choir to rapturous harmonies even as it inspires Harvey Milk to share his passion with a world that hasn't yet understood it. In this film, politics is love by other means. This is how you win.
is rated R. It opens Wednesday at Fox Tower.