Harvey Milk had big ears and a smile that stretched all the way from one to the other. He wasn't conventionally good-looking, and there was an adenoidal quality to his voice that sounded a little like Woody Allen. But there was something about the man that made you want to follow him - a twinkle in the eye, a sense that behind the semi-respectable faade was a true imp of the perverse. Milk, one of the first openly gay people elected to major public office, once apologized to a labor group he was speaking to for not having worn his high heels, thus mocking and embracing the stereotype at the same time. He didn't run from who he was. On the contrary, he encouraged gays and lesbians all over the country to come out, come out, wherever they were. Thousands upon thousands did, and a movement was born.
Milk, which stars Sean Penn as the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Castro Street," shows us that movement growing up out of the ground, one blade of grass at a time. Penn, it should be noted, arrived on set loaded for bear. He's hunkier than Milk was, inherently more masculine, but he's done an amazing job of leaving that all behind. And he doesn't just nail the externals, hiding behind a prosthetic nose. He's dug deep into his own psyche to imagine what it would feel like to suddenly realize you're gay, you've always been gay, you'll always be gay, and there's nothing wrong with that. Such empathy is what great actors are made of, and Penn here adds another indelible portrait to his gallery of Homo Americanus, holding nothing back. When he and James Franco lock lips, you couldn't separate them with a crowbar.
The movie opens with Harvey, a Wall Street suit, cruising Franco's Scott Smith in a New York subway. Harvey's just turned 40 and, though sexually active, is still in the closet. But Scott's a keeper, and like so many gay men at that time, these two head off to San Francisco with flowers in their hair. Once there, Harvey purchases a camera store, and he's barely put out the welcome mat before becoming deeply involved in neighborhood issues. Who knew he had such a talent for community organizing? Not him, but he takes to it like a man who's finally figured out what to do with his life. And he's soon running for office. Less a personal biography than a political biography, Milk takes us along for the ride, street by street, election by election, as Milk figures out how to fight his way into City Hall.
San Francisco was undergoing a power shift at that time, from straight white males to all the colors of the rainbow, and in a sense Milk caught a wave and rode it into office. But he was also a tireless campaigner and a shrewd politician. Scott, for his part, was tired, and the movie has to send him off before we feel like we've gotten to know him. (Franco has talked about having "the wife role.") That's the price of having a public life: your personal life. Or so the movie seems to be saying. On the rebound, Milk winds up with a rather unstable Mexican kid played by Y Tu Mama Tambien's Diego Luna. And this relationship will be baffling to anyone who hasn't been through one, a painful (if vague) reminder to those who have. Either way, Luna can't seem to find a way to control his inner fabulousness.
Luckily, this is one of the few instances where director Gus Van Sant loses his footing. Overall, he seems to have things beautifully under control, mixing actual footage from the time with dramatic reenactments and domestic scenes written by Dustin Lance Black. With Harris Savides (Zodiac) behind the camera, Milk is so evocative of its era you can almost convince yourself it was shot during the late-'70s, then allowed to gather dust on a shelf somewhere. And the attention to detail is like an act of historic preservation. Those who lived through the period will find themselves cringing with delight at the sight of all those tight jeans and flannel shirts, the big-ass glasses and big-ass hair, then the short hair and mustaches. And let's not forget the leather vests and feathered boas - life as an all-night costume party.
When on duty, Milk tended toward three-piece suits, his bow to the straight world, which expected him to show up in heels. And he had a way of confounding his opponents by appearing to be as straight as they were, then dropping little gay bombs all over the place. The movie takes him through his political journey: the passage of a gay-rights ordinance, even as Anita Bryant, the orange-juice shill, was leading a religious crusade to have similar ordinances repealed across the country; and the defeat of a statewide initiative to ban gays (or anyone who supported them) from teaching in public schools. The latter was the high point of Milk's career, a great victory that smelled like defeat even as the polls were closing. But Harvey's days were numbered, as he'd always feared, and we all know where this thing is going.
Josh Brolin, so effective in No Country for Old Men, does about what you'd expect with Dan White, the conservative city supervisor who shot Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk in cold blood after a stormy tenure on the board. Brolin shows us a straight white male who's distinctly uncomfortable with the way things have been going. What he doesn't show us is a straight white guy who's uncomfortable in his own skin. Anyone who's seen The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning documentary, will remember how stiff and awkward White was, the rage bubbling up through his pores. A star athlete, he'd gotten himself elected to a job he wasn't really qualified for, and being outmaneuvered by the city's first openly gay politician must have hurt. But where's the element of true madness in Brolin's performance?
White basically got away with murder when a jury of his peers bought his so-called Twinkie defense, agreeing that junk food had impaired his judgment, thereby calling for the lesser verdict of voluntary manslaughter. And Van Sant has chosen not to show the riot that ensued, preferring to close with the 30,000-strong candlelight march that ushered Milk into the hereafter. Thirty years later, you have to wonder what he'd make of our present situation: gay-marriage bans in a number of states, even California, but gay and lesbian public officials all over the place, and the kind of media exposure Milk was always calling for. He knew there was strength in numbers; it was simply a matter of standing up and being counted. And wherever he is today, looking down on a world that gets better and worse by the hour, he's still counting.