Sean Penn is an amazing actor. You probably knew that already. Still, the guy insists on proving it time and again. The most recent evidence is the biopic “Milk,” in which he delivers a remarkable, heartfelt performance as Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco city supervisor who was among the nation’s first openly gay elected officeholders.
It’s no easy task to portray a modern-day historical figure and convey what made him or her so captivating in real life. Hollywood biopics are littered with the good intentions of movie stars who failed to come close to grasping the singular charisma of their subject. “Milk” is a rare exception.
Penn gets the externals of Milk right “ the faintly nasal cadence of his voice and the occasional awkwardness of his mannerisms “ but the actor also captures the man’s core humanity. It’s a soulful and impassioned performance, perhaps Penn’s best to date “ and that’s saying something.
Unlike so many biopics that attempt to cover an entire lifetime, “Milk” has the bittersweet advantage of detailing a relatively compact period, since the man was murdered less than two years after his election to public office. The story takes off in 1972, when Milk moves with his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco, “Pineapple Express,” “Spider-Man 3″), from New York to San Francisco’s Castro district.
Once a predominantly Irish Catholic working-class neighborhood, the Castro by then had become a sanctuary for young gay men from across the nation. The 42-year-old Milk, who had spent much of his life closeted about his sexuality, was eager to enjoy the freedoms that San Francisco promised. He opened a camera store and threw himself into neighborhood activism.
As his public profile increased, so did his ambitions to force greater change. Buoyed by a ragtag group of supporters that included a snarky ex-gigolo (Emile Hirsch, “Into the Wild,” “Speed Racer”), Milk ran for the city’s Board of Supervisors (roughly equivalent to a city council) in 1973. He lost, ran again two years later “ and lost again.
But Milk’s popularity and political savvy rose with each defeat. He traded in his ponytail for a business suit and launched an unsuccessful campaign for the California State Assembly.
Milk eventually won election to the city’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. Among the new faces to the board that year was Dan White (Josh Brolin, “W.,” “No Country for Old Men”), a clean-cut ex-firefighter who would assassinate Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber, TV’s “Alias”) less than two years later.
Director Gus Van Sant, after having gotten his art-house freak on in such films “Elephant” and “Paranoid Park,” is in more straightforward “ albeit not straight “ storytelling mode here. But “Milk” is superior to the dull tropes that dog many biopics. Employing long takes, documentary-styled camerawork and a skillful blend of archival footage, he evokes the scruffy mood and spirit of San Francisco in the 1970s.
More impressive is the movie’s ability to channel the temperament of its protagonist. “Milk” spills warmth and generosity to its array of characters. There is anger and pain revealed (how could a story that ends in assassination not?), but Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay ultimately defers to the power of hope. At one point, Milk is phoned by a young man who has seen the politician on TV news. The caller is gay, ostracized by his disapproving parents and contemplating suicide. “You are not wrong,” Milk tells the caller. “You are not sick and God does not hate you. Just leave.”
Milk’s story is one of tenacity and courage, but in a larger sense, it encompasses the ascent of the gay rights movement. Watching the conflicts that unfold on screen, it is striking to consider what little attention the topic has received in mainstream films until now. “Milk” feels astonishingly relevant in the schismatic United States of today, where the president-elect is black and a state as ostensibly liberal as California passes a ban on gay marriage.
Although the gay-rights battles depicted in “Milk” occurred more than 30 years ago, the struggles seem not so different from issues that still dominate public debate at the close of 2008.