Gus Van Sant has never been what you'd call a risk-adverse filmmaker, but he directs his Harvey Milk biopic so carefully, there might be a Ming vase balanced on his head. No less cautious, Sean Penn plays Milk (1930-1978), the martyred gay activist and San Francisco supervisor, with the concentration of an actor entrusted to portray the future subject of a U.S. postage stamp. Van Sant streamlines Milk's life, simplifying his trajectory from closeted Wall Street zero to out-front Castro Street hero. On the eve of his 40th birthday, Milk picks up a cute hippie (James Franco) and, after a romantic evening in tight close-up, effectively joins the counterculture, growing his hair and eloping to San Francisco. There, an activist is born. Happy, flirtatious, paternal, Milk was able to play politics both inside City Hall and out in the streets, and Milk turns grandly world-historical once the campaign launched by homophobic Moral Majority avatar Anita Bryant arrives in the form of Proposition 6, an initiative to purge gay teachers from public schools. The new supervisor finds himself on the front line of the Culture Wars, face-to-face with his fellow supervisor (and eventual assassin) Dan White (Josh Brolin). Milk is so immediate that it's impossible to separate the movie's moment from this one.
Penn as a candidate for our times.
Opens at Egyptian, Wed., Nov. 26. Rated R. 128 minutes.