Film Highlight: Milk

Sean Penn stars as real-life gay rights icon Harvey in director Gus Van Sant's <i>Milk</i>

Sean Penn stars as real-life gay rights icon Harvey in director Gus Van Sant's Milk

Gus Van Sant has never been what you'd call a risk-averse filmmaker, but he directs his Harvey Milk biopic so carefully you'd think he had 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 portraying the future subject of a U.S. postage stamp. Working from a detailed script by documentarian Dustin Lance Black, 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 cute hippie Scott Smith (James Franco) and, after a romantic evening in tight close-up, effectively joins the counterculture, growing his hair and eloping with Smith to San Francisco. There they open the Castro Camera Shop, and 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. The 1978 victory over Proposition 6 merges with the recent struggle against California's Proposition 8, which overturned the state Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage. A charismatic leader has yet to emerge, but there is...Milk, and its wholehearted devotion to the principle of equal protection under the law.