The first onscreen images are eerie reminders of the time in which Harvey Milk came of age: black-and-white footage of young men being quietly led from gay bars to police vans. They are not resisting.
It's the 1960s, and the men are docile, hiding their faces, clearly ashamed. In the '70s, Milk was not ashamed. And as played by Sean Penn, once he makes it to City Hall, he doesn't want his staff to be ashamed either.
"Any time you come here," he tells a supporter on his first day in office, "I want you to wear the tightest jeans possible. Never blend in."
Milk's unlikely story — the tale of how a transplanted New Yorker in San Francisco built an unlikely coalition with the Teamsters, united a largely apolitical gay community and rode into public office on the issue of cleaning up dog poop — fills Gus Van Sant's briskly entertaining film with plenty of incident.
Also with colorful characters: Emile Hirsch, flirting madly as street punk-turned-community organizer Cleve Jones; James Franco and Diego Luna as Milk's wildly different lovers; Josh Brolin as his fellow city supervisor Dan White, who'd be a political antagonist and eventually Milk's assassin.
White was a family-values conservative — a likely opponent, once Milk introduced a citywide gay-rights bill just like the one that homophobic singer Anita Bryant had crusaded successfully against in Florida.
What sets this film entertainingly apart from most civil rights sagas, though, are a slew of relaxed, offhandedly persuasive performances, along with the flamboyance of hippie-era San Francisco. And of course there's Penn, who's so engaging, physically loose and just plain smart in the title role, he's bound to top everyone's shortlist come awards time.
Brolin, who has far fewer scenes in which to morph from family man to monster, is also terrific. And he makes a nicely ambiguous case for the screenplay's most arresting notion: that Milk could have regarded his killer as a kind of kindred spirit, who might himself have one foot in the closet.
Director Gus Van Sant builds his era-evoking story around some enormous, screen-filling set pieces by mixing '70s news footage with freshly shot sequences. He re-creates political rallies — the fight against an anti-gay ballot proposition that feels all-too-familiar this year — and of course, the gunshots that ended the lives of Milk and Mayor George Moscone 30 years ago.
The killings are treated in the film as a literally operatic climax, but Van Sant doesn't end the story with them. Instead, he provides a rending bookend to those first black-and-white shots of embarrassed men being rounded up by the police.
This time, the news footage is in color, and the police are on the sidelines. And the thousands marching with candles are sadly — but proudly — honoring one of their own. (Recommended)