I'd warn of spoilers, but most people seeing the film know that Harvey Milk died in 1978, assassinated by Dan White. And if they don't, the movie reveals its conclusion early on. This isn't a murder mystery or a crime film. It's a well-acted, beautifully filmed biography. It concerns a man who felt at forty he'd accomplished nothing of significance-- and eight years later had become the symbol and most celebrated representative of the modern gay rights movement.

We begin in the decades before the 1970s, before Stonewall. Grainy footage shows men rounded up by police, dragged from bars, crammed into paddy wagons. Time shoots forward to November 27, 1978, and the announcement of a double homicide. Then time rewinds, and a still-living Harvey Milk records events of his life, to be played in the event of his assassination.

Director Gus Van Sant blends original film with archival footage and Gumpish fusions. It's not entirely clear at times when actual glimpses of the seventies end and Hollywood handiwork begins. Van Sant uses other stylistic flourishes as well. Harvey Milk talks to the police in the aftermath of a killing he knows won't be properly investigated. We see the scene in the shattered glasses of the murdered man: reflected, distorted, and from an odd angle, as is so much non-mainstream history. When Milk later fears he's being stalked, the camera's focus narrows on him, as he moves quickly and fearfully. The background has been reduced to a blur, and his potential attacker, an obscured, threatening shadow.

Sean Penn, to use the cliché, disappears into the title role. The voice and mannerisms belong entirely to the character. He smiles like Harvey Milk. It's difficult to get past your eyes that this is Sean Penn. The film makes Milk heroic, but far from flawless. He can be manipulative and insensitive. His sense of theater borders on the excessive. I suspect, however, that these statements could be made of most successful political figures. Years of hard campaigns, blatant bigotry, and small victories taught him how the game is played. The film hints at other, less positive sides of its hero—-his promiscuity, for example-- but these it leaves incompletely explored.

Other actors do a fine job as Milk's associates, support staff, and opponents. Denis O'Hare as Senator John Briggs almost seems a parody of bigotry. Of course he dislikes gays and lesbians, and he feels God is on his side. Of course he advances arguments that many people cannot accept, but which follow consistently from a set of beliefs. These things are a given. But he also advances thoroughly irrational, obviously flawed reasons as well. He accepts, for example, that homosexuals are no more likely to be child molesters than heterosexuals-- and then insists that gay teachers be fired because they might molest children. He campaigns for a proposition that would take the jobs of homosexual teachers, and those of any other gay person working for a school, or anyone working for a school who supports the rights of homosexuals. We're reminded that people like him existed and exist. Lots of people like him. In case we doubt that, the film provides us with archival footage of Anita Bryant. We're reminded that, though prejudice remains, so very much has changed in recent decades.

Diego Luna plays one of Milk's later partners, a high maintenance man incapable of mixing with his lover's world. It's an interesting portrayal, though I could not really understand what drew Milk to this person.

Similarly, Dan White remains an enigma. We can only speculate on what, exactly, led a former police officer, decorated fire-fighter, Vietnam veteran, dedicated family man, and community leader to commit a double murder for which he knew he would be arrested and tried.1 Josh Brolin plays White as sincere but increasingly unstable, and increasingly fascinated with Milk's political successes. Milk himself claims he sees a fear of discovery in White's eyes, though the film does not (and, without inventing history, cannot) investigate what that might mean. The film limits his controversial trial and eventual suicide to a brief epilogue. We don't need to hear, for example, evidence that suggests he premeditated the killings. It's enough that we watch him slip through a window with a concealed weapon while Harvey Milk walks through the front door, past security and through metal detectors.

An interesting piece of history: Oliver Stone wrote a Harvey Milk biopic some years ago, hired Van Sant to direct, and cast Robin Williams in the lead role. That picture fell by the wayside. Van Sant eventually made this film from an entirely different script. Watching Milk, I can only conclude that cinematic history worked out for the best.

Actual history remains more ambivalent.

Milk has received eight Critic's Choice Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), one Golden Globe (Best Actor, Sean Penn), a Writer's Guild of America Award (Best Original Screenplay), and eight Oscar Nominations, among other accolades.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Dustin Lance Black

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk
James Franco as Scott Smith
Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones
Josh Brolin as Dan White
Diego Luna as Jack Lira
Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg
Victor Garber as Mayor George Moscone
Denis O'Hare as State Senator John Briggs
Joseph Crossas Dick Pabich
Stephen Spinella as Rick Stokes
Lucas Grabeel as Danny Nicoletta
Brandon Boyce as Jim Rivaldo
Howard Rosenman as David Goodstein
Kelvin Yu as Michael Wong

1. We know why he targeted the particular individuals, but the reasons why he turned murderous, and acted on his impulses in the specific manner that he did, remain cloudy.