By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Harvey Milk would have wanted Gus Van Sant's biography of him released weeks ago, before voters in Florida and Milk's home state of California decided gay marriage isn't acceptable.
That was the gay politician's campaign style: "It appears to be about me but it's really about us." Milk may have made the difference that Oliver Stone's W. didn't, pushing an issue beyond inflammatory rhetoric, making it real. Van Sant's meticulous essay of the gay rights movement's dawning — and the murder of its pioneer — could have weighed heavily on voters.
But tardiness doesn't diminish the fact that Milk — mostly due to Sean Penn's portrayal of the title martyr — is one of 2008's finest films.
It's a bit strident and repetitive, but that was Harvey Milk, who needed to be that way in order to out-shout the parallel rise of Christian conservatism. Van Sant's movie depicts an era 30 years ago yet topical today, with a hero's message of hope that unavoidably mirrors Barack Obama's. The past seldom seems as much prologue.
Deftly blending archival footage and 1970s period re-creations, Van Sant presents Harvey Milk as someone who could rub the wrong way for all the right reasons. Tired of seeing homosexuals treated like criminal pariahs, Milk used the system against itself, becoming the first openly gay elected official in the United States, turning San Francisco's Castro district into a model of social and economic equality.
Yet the movie doesn't paint Milk as a flawless crusader. He's an incorrigible flirt, flamboyant to the brink of caricature, so absorbed in the fight that people close to him get hurt. Sometimes you want to grab Milk's lapels and shake hindsight into him. It's a tricky role that Penn masterfully handles, placing him at the forefront of Oscar contenders.
Actors are often praised for growing into biographical roles. Penn magnificently shrinks into this one, muting his macho persona without noticeable strain. The fey inflection in his line deliveries, the same-sex kisses, never seem like an actor feigning gay. It's difficult to imagine an out-there character like Harvey Milk to be underplayed, but Penn does it.
He's the masthead of an equally committed ensemble cast: James Franco is superb as Milk's lover and campaign manager, until ambition pushes him away; Emile Hirsch brings a playful spirit to a street kid turned protege; Josh Brolin is chilling without being arch as Dan White, the city supervisor who eventually murdered Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). The only sore spot is Diego Luna's portrayal of Milk's second lover, so unbalanced that such a savvy politician would have booted him.
Milk is a tragedy that avoids being maudlin through its sheer anger, directed at past demagogues like Anita Bryant (shown only in news footage) and those of today, although in unspoken ways. Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black are occasionally too didactic, and early campaign sequences could be trimmed to advance the story.
But Milk has the crossover potential, and therefore the potential to change attitudes, that Brokeback Mountain did a few years ago. Van Sant's movie is a banner for a subculture's message that many Americans still don't get: They're here, they're queer, get used to it.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.