A large part of Milk's success, however, is its lack of self-importance. Van Sant has never been an overtly political filmmaker, and while Milk is a departure from his more experimental recent films, it works as well as it does because it grounds its politics in very personal terms. We're introduced to Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) on the eve of his fortieth birthday, as he picks up young Scott Smith (James Franco) in a subway station. Penn is immediately believable in the role, embodying Milk's sensitivity and puckish sense of humor and conveying, with a quick glance after a stolen kiss, the fear of being outed that even this strong advocate for the importance of coming out once felt. His performance is revelatory, never slipping into caricature and emphasizing Milk's overwhelming, almost compulsive, generosity of spirit (forced to drop his assholish persona, he's also geniunely sexy for the first time since At Close Range). He and Franco have strong chemistry - though the film is never sexually explicit, moments like the shot of Harvey and Scott, having moved to San Francisco, making out against the storefront of Harvey's photo shop have a relaxed, matter-of-fact intimacy that goes a long way towards normalizing representations of homosexuality. Harvey's shop becomes a haven for young gay men like future activist Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch, sporting an excellent 'fro), and as Harvey is finally motivated to stand on a literal soapbox and announce his candidacy for local office, the film makes a strong case for the importance of activism not for the sake of political gain as expression of basic and unacknowledged human needs. The meticulously recreated protest marches later in the film (intercut with real footage from the era) owe their impact to the earlier scenes - political and personal revolution, to Van Sant, are the same thing.
There's always a risk in telling the story of a slain hero of becoming pure hagiography, and the screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, while mostly successful, sometimes flirts with agitprop. Harvey's relationship with the troubled, jealous Jack Lira (Diego Luna) could have been a chance to explore the more complicated aspects of Harvey's role as Peter Pan to a generation of lost boys, but the script's narrative shortcuts and Luna's awkward performance diminish the emotional payoff. And two scenes involving a young, wheelchair-bound gay man, while based in fact, are clumsily manipulative and should have never made it past the first draft. The film is more nuanced in its depiction of Dan White (Josh Brolin), Harvey's fellow supervisor and, ultimately, the man who killed Milk and mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). While it would have been easy to villify White as a caricature of a homophobe, Black and Van Sant try to understand him, portraying White as a man uncomfortable in his own skin and unable to shake an increasing feeling of disenfranchisement (I suspect a lot of white men feel the same way post-election). Brolin is excellent in the film's most challenging role, and Van Sant and DP Harris Savides frame Milk and White's scenes together in uncomfortably off-balance wide shots that emphasize the divide between one man trying to reach an understanding and another who is incapable or unwilling to understand. Milk's death scene is admirably restrained; as the frame rate subtly changes and the soundtrack drops out, Penn and Van Sant (referencing Milk's love of opera) give their hero a moment of grace as he dies alone and in the way he anticipated.
It's impossible, particularly in the scenes involving the battle against the Anita Bryant-endorced Proposition 6, not to think of the hateful, stupid Proposition 8 and the ongoing struggle for equal rights. The victory of Prop 8 can be largely attributed to the complacency of liberals who regard gay marriage as a hot-button issue; a forward-thinking friend cringes whenever Milk is mentioned, complaining he's tired of movies that "cram a message I already agree with down my throat." Fair enough, except that Milk doesn't preach to the choir and might actually move those who need it most. I realize it would be hard to get those who oppose gay rights to actually watch Milk, not just because they're afraid they might see a blowjob or something, but because they're so fond of criticizing movies they haven't seen (or, better yet, reduce them to a series of lame gay cowboy jokes). But I hope that, a year from now, some of them stumble upon it on cable while channel-surfing. If they're not moved by the closing documentary footage of a thousands-strong candlelight vigil populated by men and women united by a desire for acceptance and love, they should probably check to make sure their hearts are beating.