Gus Van Sant's "Milk" is of course the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold an elected office in the United States, becoming a San Francisco supervisor in 1978, just before being assassinated along with Mayor Moscone by Dan White, a former supervisor who had served with Milk. You may well have seen the wonderful 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk," which tells much the same story.
The film is superb and I'll get to that in a minute, but what "Milk" does to set the stage is spend time with the three electoral losses that Milk took before winning his seat. "I'm a three-time loser," he says. But the great Sean Penn - and I think I'll use that adjective whenever I talk about his films from now on - the great Sean Penn - makes us understand why Harvey Milk had the chutzpah, the strength, the single-mindedness to keep going one more time. And he does it without becoming a self-important hero, just someone who had the courage to say out loud what no one else could do.
The film begins with the 48-year-old Milk talking into his tape recorder about his life and his decisions. We'll come back again and again to that recording as he comes closer to the end of his life. The great Sean Penn doesn't use that tape in trying to make Harvey Milk more than he felt himself to be; we actually only know in retrospect just what a hero he actually was. The film then shows us his life in New York, back in 1970, where Harvey picks up Scott Smith (James Franco) on a subway platform. They fall in love, and we see them on Harvey's 40th birthday, celebrating in bed with a lovely cake. Milk is restless: "I'm 40 years old and I haven't done a thing," he says. They move to San Francisco, where they open a camera shop.
Soon he is the "Mayor of the Castro," and becomes an activist for gay rights at a time when the San Francisco police were beating up and arresting gays. As he does so Scott leaves him, but he picks up other brave political activists, including Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch in a wonderfully kooky performance), the man who later would create the AIDS quilt. And Milk goes on to get support from the unions, from the elderly, from those who had never had a voice.
When finally Milk does win a seat as a supervisor, he finds both an ally and an opponent in another supervisor, Dan White (a brave performance by Josh Brolin, who shows us the unexpressed tension of a man who might be gay but will do anything so as not to admit it). The two men's paths get closer and closer.
All of this Penn plays without a moment's self-consciousness, without vanity, without ever separating himself from Harvey Milk; so much so that when we see the final shot in the film, of a candlelight march by thousands of people - actual newsreel footage, by the way - we are in tears for both men equally. This is a film not to be missed.