Milk is a well-intentioned film, but it's also well-made, and it never confuses nobility of purpose with narrative direction. It's full of inspiration and aspiration, but at the same time, it never kids itself -- or us -- about the tricky, twisty ways of modern American urban politics. It's a sincere plea for equality that doesn't ignore the challenges of prejudice and fear. It celebrates past victories and speaks to current struggles; it mourns devastating losses and is still a hymn to hope. It commemorates a man and spotlights a movement; it avoids cliché feel-good moments but still wrings richness out of moments that feel good. It has a heart, and a brain; it's tender and loving while also being sexy and hot; it features a brilliant performance from Sean Penn but surrounds him with other talented actors doing superb work. Milk is adult and intelligent in ways many films are not, and it's rousing and enthralling in a way few films are. It's a minor miracle of sheer film making joy and determination, and one of the best American films of 2008.
Directed by Gus Van Sant (Elephant, My Own Private Idaho), Milk is radically conventional; it's also subtly, gracefully, innovative and sharp. Best of all, Milk shows us a man who may have been a martyr, but who was most assuredly not a saint -- and makes us respect his accomplishments all the more by showing us the public work and private deals it took to make them happen. Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk, a New York white collar worker who, at 40, came out of the closet, moved to San Francisco in 1972 with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) and opened a business and got active -- first as a community organizer, then as a political candidate and ultimately a San Francisco City Supervisor in 1977, the first openly gay elected official in California. Milk was killed in 1978, when his fellow Supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin) shot and killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Milk in the wake of White's resignation. It's hard to imagine an audience member not knowing this going into Milk, and yet Van Sant wisely puts it up front, to contextualize Milk's work and to let the film -- and the audience -- commemorate a life instead of merely chronicling a death.