Milk: It's Good, and Good for You

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Phil Bray / Focus Features

Sean Penn stars as gay rights activist Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's Milk

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

"I am not a candidate," Milk says in the movie. "The movement is the candidate." That was false modesty. In California he was the movement's star, its producer and director. And Penn dominates the film — not in his usual way, by making brooding seem like a form of higher calisthenics. Perhaps the least homosexual actor around, Penn here reins in his Method bluster to locate the sweetness and vulnerability beneath Milk's assured persona. He becomes this character — surely far from his experience — with no italicizing, no condescension, no sweat. This isn't an impersonation; it's an inhabiting.

In any early scene, Harvey shares a long, loving kiss with his future lover, Scott Smith (James Franco in a finely tuned turn). The kiss is director Gus Van Sant's declaration that, yes, this will be a gay movie. But there's no shock value, except in the tenderness of the passion — when was the last time you saw a great movie kiss?

Van Sant emerged as an indie filmmaker with pictures like Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. These were set in the lower depths, populated with hookers and victims, sometimes ending in death. Those elements are here, mostly personified in Harvey's troubled lover Jack Lira (Diego Luna), as are Van Sant's old camera tropes of slo-mo and unsteady focus. But they aren't at the foreground, In the dichotomy between his audience-pleasing big movies (To Die For, Good Will Hunting) and his audience-resistant art films (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park), Milk is securely in the former category. It's his most disciplined film — he was hired to direct Black's script, stuck to it, worked well with actors — and easily his best.

Harvey Milk lived with death threats. In the film, before one rally, he is handed a note reading, "You get the first bullet the minute you stand at the microphone." Black frames the film as a monologue delivered into a tape recorder by Harvey, who's as sure of his impending death as he is of his gay-liberation creed. In the '70s, paranoia was simply common sense; the preceding 10 years had seen the murders of King and Robert Kennedy and assassination attempts on Gerald Ford and George Wallace. The movie is faithful to that grungy time, but it downplays the riots that followed its hero's assassination; Black and Van Sant don't want Milk to leave a sour taste. They've made a picture that is frankly celebratory, forthrightly inspirational. It's no less determined to get its message across than Harvey Milk was.

We've come a long way, baby, since 1978. Uncloseted homosexuals occupy seats in Congress, state legislatures and city councils; as author and political strategist David Mixner notes, "almost every state has at least one openly gay or lesbian elected official, including Alabama, Montana and Oklahoma." The gay subculture is a hip harbinger of official culture and can boast its own nationwide cable network in Logo (two if you count Bravo!). Homocentric movies like Milk have replaced homophobic movies like Advise and Consent; and in TIME you read reviews like this instead of the 1962 review of Victim.

But some aspects of the national conversation between homosexuals and those who oppose or fear them haven't changed. Gay and faggot are widespread terms of abuse. Famous actors and singers won't declare their sexual orientation out of concern that their careers would be kaput. There are camps with regimens to "cure" kids of gayness. John Briggs and his national counterpart, Anita Bryant, aren't spearheading the outspoken antagonism to gay civil rights, but the Mormon Church is. It poured $20 million into promoting Proposition 8, this year's California initiative to outlaw gay marriage. Fear lost in 1977; it won in 2008.

Three decades ago, Milk and his ilk were able to enlist President Jimmy Carter and future President Ronald Reagan in the gay fight against Prop. 6. But this fall, Barack Obama was all but mute on Prop. 8. Some community organizers, like the President-elect, are more cautious than others. It's a shame Harvey Milk wasn't around to recruit him.

In the original version of this article, Gus van Sant's movie was incorrectly named. The title is Paranoid Park, not Punishment Park.

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