How many politicians could you describe as fun? Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the country, and the subject of Gus Van Sant's intimate, stirring "Milk," was a potent mixture of sweetness and chutzpah, idealism and opportunism, playfulness and ambition. He may have put on a suit and tie to run, but he never clipped his queer wings to mollify straight voters. A skinny, mouthy New Yorker, he abandoned his humdrum 9-to-5 job in the early '70s, and with his hippie lover, Scott Smith, headed for the wilder shores of San Francisco, just as gay political power was beginning to raise its fist. Campaigning out of his camera store in the Castro, building coalitions between the growing gay community, the local merchants and the Teamsters, Milk lost three elections before he finally became a city supervisor in 1977. The following year he and Mayor George Moscone would be assassinated by fellow board member Dan White.
Milk has become a political martyr, but Van Sant's movie doesn't try to oversell its hero. As Sean Penn plays him, the pioneering activist remains resolutely life-size: mischievous, gregarious, committed, but always fallibly human. Penn's metamorphosis into Harvey is miraculous, all the more so because there's nothing showy about it, even though Milk had a showman's flair. "I'm Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you!" he yells through his bullhorn at campaign rallies, mocking the enemies who thundered about sinister homosexuals recruiting youths into the persuasion. "Milk," written by Dustin Lance Black from his own extensive research, intercuts dramatized scenes with archival footage, and it's a tribute to Van Sant's lived-in re-creation of '70s San Francisco that you can hardly tell the difference. By recent Van Sant standards ("Elephant," "Paranoid Park") "Milk" unfolds in conventional biopic terms, but the laid-back, unhyped tone is Van Sant's own, and the emphasis on Milk's creation of an outsider family of fellow activists is a motif that goes back to "Drugstore Cowboy."
Penn may be the main attraction, but this is very much an ensemble piece. Emile Hirsch, as cheeky street kid turned activist Cleve Jones, Diego Luna as Milk's annoyingly needy, unstable second lover and James Franco's Scott, who has a smile that could melt an iceberg, if not Anita Bryant, add to the communal spirit. Josh Brolin invests the creepy but pitiable White with a simmering desperation: his charged encounters with the man he will murder are some of the movie's strongest moments. How you feel about "Milk" may depend on whether you've seen Rob Epstein's great, Oscar-winning 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk." Van Sant's movie lacks that film's shattering emotional impact. (Rage is not a color in the director's palette.) For those coming to Milk's story for the first time, however, this will be a rousing experience. In the wake of California's gay-marriage referendum, it's hard to overstate how timely "Milk" feels.