The Ghandi of gay? 

click to enlarge Sean Penn pulls off the pink-flowered lei better than Lionel Rivera ever could.
  • Sean Penn pulls off the pink-flowered lei better than Lionel Rivera ever could.

*Milk (R)

Cinemark 16, Kimball's Twin Peak

If no single moment can be completely fitting for a biographical drama about martyred civil rights hero Harvey Milk, this moment, 30 years after his assassination, sure feels close.

As one of America's first openly gay elected officials, Milk's political victories included stopping a California ballot initiative that would have barred gay people from being teachers. Now the film arrives in an if-only-Harvey-were-here haze, just on the heels of a California ballot initiative that has reversed the legality of same-sex marriage.

Really, when's the last time a movie has been so heavily freighted, yet so jubilantly received? Well, as the culture warrior himself, here played by Sean Penn, says more than once, "You gotta give them hope."

He had several catchphrases. In retrospect, "Never blend in" has become another. So it's fitting that Milk doesn't neatly align with the current canon of more or less mainstream Hollywood gay movies say, Philadelphia or Brokeback Mountain made by straight directors. Nor does it seem fully assimilated among the other offerings say, Last Days or Paranoid Park made by its viably fringy, openly gay but not particularly crusading director, Gus Van Sant.

In fact, these are good things.

To begin with, for all its gracious humor and affectionate wit, Penn's portrayal of Harvey Milk might be his liveliest, most lovable turn since breaking through as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

"I know I'm not what you expected," Milk tells a room full of Teamsters early in the film and in his political career, "but I left my high heels at home." As he wins them over with that line, it becomes clear that the whole movie will be a tasteful come-on, in that same charming, coyly deferential tone.

Oh, Milk could be assertive, too whether pushing supporters too hard to come out of the closet or defusing a potential riot by channeling it into a peaceful march. Here, where the emphasis is on dignity, sincerity and tenderness, the Milk M.O. has mostly to do with the act of building rapport.

It applies to all the important men in Milk's life, each memorably portrayed: James Franco as Scott Smith, his longtime companion and eventual first campaign manager; Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, the street kid who became his protg (and consultant to Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black); Diego Luna as Jack Lira, the unstable lover who replaced Smith; and especially Josh Brolin as Dan White, the fellow San Francisco city supervisor whose epic rivalry with Milk ended tragically.

Outwardly a family-values man, but with the air of a lonely interloper, Brolin's White certainly is confused and abashed about his relationship with Milk, who in real life had roots as a Goldwater Republican and in the movie finds White intriguing enough to wonder if he might be "one of us."

In any event, it is poignant to behold how the two men underestimate each other. The film allows each character an awakening to his own ambitions and a unique way of becoming overwhelmed by them, just as it allows each actor a warmer, deeper register than he usually tends to reveal. Penn and Brolin clearly enjoy the richness of their scenes together; they bring out each other's best. And it's in these moments that Milk most transcends the solemnity of its historical duty, seeming both timely and timeless as if its moment could only be right now.



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