For a gay leader who rose out of the low-rent pleasure-dome bohemia of San Francisco's Castro district in the 1970s, Harvey Milk came off as a fairly ''straight'' shooter. Running for the board of supervisors (the equivalent of the city council), the Long Island-born Milk cultivated a respectable, slightly stuffy look and demeanor the three-piece suits, the shock of hair he wore like a mildly rebellious English professor that worked as a strategy: He wasn't about to let anyone peg him as some hippie-homosexual degenerate (at least, not by 1977, when he had already lost three elections). But Milk's squareness was more than a mask. It said: Here, at long last, is a gay politician who's out of the closet yet knows how to work the system. What Milk's ebullient smile beamed to the world was how good it felt for an activist to lay his hands on power.
In Milk, Gus Van Sant's incisive and stirring dramatization of Harvey Milk's heroic life and violent death, Sean Penn inhabits those suits with a slightly awkward body language a nerd's stiffness that is touching to behold, because it's so jarringly expressive. When Milk stands before a crowd of demonstrators and waves his arms, out of some combination of wanting to inspire and not knowing where to put those arms when he speaks, he's a true man of the people: a noble schmo thrust into history because he realizes that if he doesn't lead, no one else will. Penn does an imitation of Milk's Lawn Guyland Jewish whine that's a bit more fey than that of the actual public Harvey Milk. But the theatricality of Penn's acting works as a brilliant projection of Milk's playful intellectual spirit his fighter's joy.
Milk is a fascinating film more docudrama than biopic because, as staged by Van Sant, from Dustin Lance Black's deft screenplay, it immerses us in the political process. Milk, a Bay Area camera-store proprietor, doesn't choose politics; it chooses him when he sees that even in San Francisco, gays are treated like third-class citizens. Once he gets elected supervisor, the movie is devoted to his attempt to defeat Proposition 6, a statewide measure to ban gay teachers that Milk seizes on as a key issue of civil freedom. With Miss America runner-up–turned–antigay crusader Anita Bryant as his foil of intolerance, Milk isn't just fighting for ''rights.'' He's leading a cultural crusade. The movie shows you what a shrewd politico he is (he uses beer boycotts, dog-poop laws, anything that works), and it's creepy to see him forge a rickety alliance with Dan White (Josh Brolin), the conservative Catholic supervisor who, like Milk, gets elected thanks to a new district-divided voter map. Brolin makes White a dim politician and hooded soul in a world changing too fast for him to handle.
As a study of a political moment, Milk is memorable. As a story of Milk's personal life, however, it leaves something to be desired. James Franco is sharp as the boyfriend who ditches him, but from the moment Diego Luna shows up in the underwritten role of Milk's flakiest lover, you feel that the film is leaving out as much as it shows. But that's a forgivable flaw in the rare liberal message-movie manifesto that lingers in the mind as well as the heart. A–