milk-01Time magazine once described Harvey Milk as “the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the planet,” so it’s a bit surprising it took Hollywood three decades to commit his story to celluloid. Then again, maybe the delay is fortuitous. “Milk,” director Gus Van Sant’s portrait of the pioneering San Francisco city supervisor, premiered a mere 21 days after California voters approved a ballot measure stripping gay couples of their right to marry. Like gay Americans everywhere, this defeat left me heartbroken, but as “Milk” reminds us, progress in our movement has always been halting.

Yet to view “Milk” solely through the prism of this generation’s struggle for marriage rights is to do the film a disservice. Yes, “Milk” is a historical snapshot, a period piece that demonstrates how far gay Americans have come since the very notion of “gay rights” was a novelty. But “Milk” is also much, much more. At its heart, it is a story about summoning the courage to be yourself, and being willing to lay down your life to defend that freedom. This resonant message, brilliantly interpreted by Van Sant and star Sean Penn, makes “Milk” a masterpiece, easily one of my all-time favorite films.

The movie follows Milk’s evolution from an aimless New York professional to San Francisco community organizer to full-fledged politician. Although Milk’s life ended prematurely, this is an uplifting film. Don’t come to “Milk” expecting a “Brokeback Mountain”-style tragedy. In fact, with its underlying message that “all men are created equal” – “Milk” is the very flip side of “Brokeback.”

“Milk” is as much an artistic achievement as it is a statement about personal courage. Van Sant tells Milk’s story through flashbacks, a traditional biopic technique that may surprise fans who’ve grown accustomed to his eschewing all things conventional. But make no mistake: This is definitely a Gus Van Sant movie. In directing “Milk,” he preserves his art house sensibility while ensuring his cinematic flourishes don’t overwhelm the storytelling. Other “Milk” reviews have noted the shot in which Milk stands over the body of a slain friend, the image reflected in a shiny safety whistle as it lay in the street. It’s an imaginative shot, but my favorite is another mirror effect: the reflection of Dan White – Milk’s troubled colleague and rival – on a television screen as he watches news coverage of his nemesis. Filmgoers who know how Milk’s story ends will likely find the contrast between their faces unsettling.

milk-02Of course, as with any great film, “Milk” is a collaboration between director and cast. Much has been written about Penn’s performance in the title role, and I have nothing to add, except to say it is worthy of every column inch of praise. The supporting cast is superb, particularly James Franco as Milk’s partner, Scott Smith. If Penn is the film’s soul, then Franco is its heart. It’s good to see him come into his own as an actor.

Given the tender care director and star bring to the subject matter, the question must be asked: Is “Milk” a biography or a tribute? I’m not enough of an authority on Milk’s life to comment on the honesty of the film’s portrayal, but for what it’s worth, Van Sant shows Milk was no saint. We see how Milk puts his career first, ultimately ending his relationship with Scott, and later, with another boyfriend. And Van Sant isn’t sparing in showcasing Milk’s thirst for publicity. In one scene, Milk choreographs an “impromptu” arrival at a march on city hall, a move apparently designed to bolster his reputation as a man of the people. Some may sniff at Milk’s showmanship, but I’d argue his keen appreciation for political theatrics was one of his greatest strengths and part of his charm.

But even if “Milk” is an unabashed salute, so what? Hasn’t the time come for us to shed our cynicism and begin believing again in good men and women, even if we have to reach into the past to find them? The fact is Milk’s achievements were extraordinary. He deserves to be lionized.

Harvey Milk came along just when we needed him, and every person who has ever felt marginalized by society should be thankful for that. We should also be thankful to Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn for this triumphant portrait of the man.

My rating: Five out of five stars

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