The Gandhi of gay?

What would Harvey do? James Franco (left) and Sean Penn in <i>Milk</i>.

What would Harvey do? James Franco (left) and Sean Penn in Milk.

Rated 4.0

If no single historical moment can be completely and exactly correct for a biographical drama about the martyred civil-rights hero Harvey Milk, this moment, 30 years after his assassination, sure feels close.

Reintroducing America to its first openly gay elected official, the man whose famous political victories included one over the California ballot initiative that would have barred gay people from being teachers, Milk arrives in an if-only-Harvey-were-here-now haze, just on the heels of the California ballot initiative that has reversed the legality of same-sex marriage. When’s the last time a movie has been so heavily freighted with multiple frames of cultural reference and yet so jubilantly received? Well, as the unlikely yet inevitable culture warrior himself, here played by Sean Penn, says more than once, “You gotta give them hope.”

He had several of those enduring, imperative catch phrases. In retrospect, and in marketing, “Never blend in” has become another. Categorically, Milk doesn’t neatly align with the current canon of official Hollywood gay movies—say, Philadelphia or Brokeback Mountain—made by straight directors. Nor does it seem fully assimilated among the other offerings—say, Last Days or Paranoid Park—made by its viably fringy, openly gay but not particularly crusading director, Gus Van Sant.

Plus, it’s much later to the table than Rob Epstein’s definitive-seeming 1983 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, but still earlier than that other Harvey Milk biopic, The Mayor of Castro Street, reportedly due from that other high-profile gay director, Bryan Singer, next year. And heaven knows Milk doesn’t accord, temperamentally, with other recent political and biographical Sean Penn vehicles—say, The Assassination of Richard Nixon or All the King’s Men.

In fact, these are all good things. To begin with, for all its gracious humor and affectionate wit, Penn’s portrayal of Harvey Milk might be his liveliest, most lovable turn since first breaking through as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

“I know I’m not what you expected,” Harvey tells a room full of Teamsters early in the film and in his fledgling political career, “but I left my high heels at home.” As he wins them over with that line, one of many slyly self-effacing seductions, it becomes clear that the whole movie will be a come-on, in that same charming, coyly deferential tone.

Oh, he could be assertive, too, in both crass and heroic ways—whether pushing his supporters too hard to come out of the closet or channeling a potential Castro district riot into a peaceful protest.

Here, with the emphasis on dignity, sincerity and tenderness, the Milk MO has mostly to do with the constructiveness of building rapport.

It applies to all the important men in Harvey’s life, each memorably portrayed: James Franco as Scott Smith, the longtime companion and eventual de facto first campaign manager he picked up in a New York subway stairwell and eloped to San Francisco with; Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, the cute street kid from Phoenix who became his protégé (and a historical consultant to Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black); Diego Luna as Jack Lira, the unstable lover who replaced a finally campaign-weary Smith; and especially Josh Brolin as Dan White, the fellow San Francisco city supervisor whose epic, tragic rivalry with Milk ended abruptly when White murdered him and Mayor George Moscone in 1978.

Whether the role of a killer bigot and political mediocrity should be considered a step up, or down, or sideways, for Brolin, last seen onscreen as our outgoing commander in chief, can be debated during awards season. Outwardly a family-values man, but with the air of a lonely outsider, Brolin’s White certainly is confused and abashed about his relationship with Milk.

In any event, it is poignant to behold how the two men underestimate each other. The film allows each character an awakening to his own ambitions and a unique way of becoming overwhelmed by them, just as it allows each actor a warmer, deeper register than he usually tends to reveal onscreen. Penn and Brolin clearly enjoy the emotional richness of their scenes together; they bring out each other’s best. It’s in these moments that Milk most transcends the solemnity of its historical duty, seeming both timely and timeless—and fully alive.