M ilk rests so exclusively - and solidly - on its performances, especially Sean Penn's marvelous characterization of Harvey Milk, that audiences won't realize how strong its mojo is until an assassin's bullets break the spell. It's not a great movie, but it is an enlivening and unusual one: an effervescent political film that also packs a knockout punch.
As Milk, Penn provides the most embracing, democratic portrait of an American figure since Henry Fonda's young Abe Lincoln - and Fonda was playing Lincoln in his lawyer days. One is tempted to call this portrait celebratory, but everything Penn does is too complicated for that and thus elating in a different, deeper way.
As Milk struggles to become the first openly gay man elected to high public office in a major U.S. city, the joy belongs to moviegoers. He may become an inspiration, but we get to see him sweat, then triumph, as he uses every means of persuasion to confront the volatility of threatened straights and the reticence of closeted gays.
The director, Gus Van Sant, has said he just wanted to let Penn rip. (Van Sant's staging is generally so limp here, I can believe it.) Penn, of course, does more. As Milk, who rose to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and became potential mayoral material, Penn breathes the character in thoroughly and breathes him out unself-consciously and passionately. His body language and facial expressions reflect an astonishing alteration in spirit, whether he's raising a fist in triumph at a parade or toppling into romance head-first at a subway stop with the pickup who turns into his most profound lover, Scott Smith (James Franco).
What's just as important as his gestures and movements are the sparkle in his eye, the laugh lines in his face and, when you can hear him above the fray or in the quiet of a lonely corridor or a private home, the resilience and humor in his voice. (In Penn's and Franco's characterizations, Milk and the affectionate, devoted Smith harmonize beautifully until politics tears them apart.) Penn the off-screen personality becomes deliberate and somber when he talks about politics on The Charlie Rose Show. As Milk, he creates a character whose passion is extroverted and infectious: Even his guile conveys a sense of play.
Penn becomes a politician in a way he never did as Willie Stark in All the King's Men. Maybe there he was too self-consciously playing a generalized upstart proletarian, a man of the people. In Milk, he plays a man of his people who realizes that he can find common ground citywide only by staying true to his constituency, even if that means shaking up the gay community's established leaders on both the left and the right.
With its message of grass-roots commitment and the galvanizing power of hope, Milk will do more than revitalize opponents of California's Proposition 8. Milk is a Barack Obama-era movie in the best way: It could keep all of Obama's followers charged up. Penn convinces you that Milk was both a self-made politician and, by the end, a natural politician. He became the kind of leader who by finding himself helped others find themselves.
Milk's assassin, Dan White, doesn't even know himself. In Josh Brolin's instinctively brilliant interpretation, White, the spokesman for traditional values who becomes Milk's prime antagonist on the Board of Supervisors, gives off the free-floating panic and dangerous vibes of an inchoate adolescent who feels his world falling down around him. The bullets he aims at Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) and Milk may cut down his perceived political enemies, but you know that White's only peace will come after the movie is over, when he turns a gun on himself.
Not all of the performances work (and Diego Luna is destructively bad as Milk's clinging second lover), but when Penn clicks with his bit players and co-stars (including the ebullient Emile Hirsch as activist Cleve Jones), the movie gives you the rare sensation of seeing a political movement come together organically.
Milk has already been the subject of an extraordinary documentary, Rob Epstein's The Times of Harvey Milk, and Epstein is a far better movie man than Van Sant is, at least these days. But Milk covers intimate areas that the documentary shied away from. It cuts closer to characters' skins and gets under audiences'.
Though for much of the movie I thought Van Sant was simply committing the action to film, in Milk's death he and Penn achieve an operatic perfection. And even when Penn is on a roll and Van Sant is just keeping up with him, the film transcends sketchiness or vagueness and becomes political rock.
(Focus Features) Starring Sean Penn, James Franco, Diego Luna, Josh Brolin. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Rated R for language and sexuality. Time 128 minutes.
Online Watch a preview and see more photos from Milk at baltimoresun.com/movies