Once in a while, a movie arrives at such a perfect moment, its message and meaning so finely tuned to the current zeitgeist, that it seems less a cinematic event than a cosmic convergence, willed into being by a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of the stars.
Such are the goose bumps induced by "Milk," Gus Van Sant's vivid, affecting portrait of Harvey Milk, who in 1978 joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as the first openly gay man to be elected to American public office. Just nine months later, he was assassinated by former fellow board member Dan White, who also murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone.
The list of things "Milk" gets right is a long one. But the first item has to be Sean Penn, who virtually disappears into his character, burying any trace of native mannerism or accent and emerging as a wholly convincing New York Jewish boy made good.
Thanks in large part to Penn's sensitive portrayal, when Harvey picks up a young stranger in a Manhattan subway station as "Milk" opens, the encounter doesn't feel predatory. Instead, it bespeaks the isolation and furtive search for intimacy engendered by years of stigma and persecution. Scott Smith (James Franco) goes home with Harvey and later moves with him to San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, where Harvey opens a camera shop, becomes involved in local business issues and run for office.
As Harvey goes toe-to-toe with his opponents, who range from San Francisco's gay establishment to a homophobic state legislator (back then it was Prop 6), he's not just a gay warrior, but a genuinely happy one.
Happy but, gratifyingly, not perfect. Along with Harvey's successes, "Milk" frankly depicts his flaws, including what would prove to be his fatal misreading of the hapless White.
What makes "Milk" extraordinary isn't just that it's a nuanced, stirring portrait of one of the 20th century's most pivotal figures, but that it's also a nuanced, stirring portrait of the thousands of people he energized. Harvey Milk was no doubt a great man, but Van Sant gratifyingly avoids making him a Great Man. Instead, he shifts his focus throughout "Milk" from Harvey himself to the movement he so ingeniously led. What's more, that push-pull approach flawlessly suits the idea Van Sant expresses most subtly: That history isn't a straight line but an often heartbreaking two-steps-back gavotte. The point, as Harvey Milk taught so many so well, is to stay in the dance.
-- Ann Hornaday (Nov. 26, 2008)
Contains profanity, sexual content and brief violence.