Director Gus Van Sant flirted with this project, with Sean Penn as the lead, way back in 1993 when Oliver Stone was looking to produce, but passed citing script problems. Now, the inimitably divisive auteur returns to this studied biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, with a script from HBO scribe Dustin Lance Black. Lifting his story from actual testimony recorded by a then fearful and paranoid Milk, Van Sant charts Milk’s rise to national prominence and ultimate assassination at the hands of a disturbed political rival.

An aging, dissatisfied New Yorker, Milk is the kind of quietly assertive queen that would be lynched the minute he set a foot below the Mason-Dixon line. One night he meets fellow nice boy Scott (James Franco) on the subway and whisks him off to San Francisco to live happily ever after. Setting up a small camera store in The Castro, the fashionable gay quarter, Milk encounters stiff prejudice from the large Irish Catholic community surrounding the tiny district that are none too pleased with the growing number of new arrivals.

Fueled partly by grievance and partly by an inbuilt compulsion to make a little mischief, Milk embarks on the first of several grueling attempts to get himself elected to the board of city supervisors and serve as voice for the growing gay community. He fails, of course, but each time by smaller and smaller margins, enough to keep him coming back with increased support. Meanwhile, his relationship with Scott becomes more and more strained with the pained young man forced to compete with staffers and supporters for his love’s attention, ultimately causing him to walk out ironically on the eve of Milk’s eventual triumph.

With Milk slowly surrendering his own happiness to something he now realizes is larger than himself by becoming the spearhead of a national gay rights movement, the film tilts somewhat into the realm of the political and much of the warmth is sucked out of the story. Now minus the emotional anchor of Scott, the film drifts away from Harvey Milk the man and becomes less about who he was and more about what he did with incident taking priority over insight and the historical boogeyman of Anita Bryant’s anti-gay movement introduced.

Wall-to-wall with indie darlings, Milk’s growing entourage is rounded out with the likes of Alison Pill as savvy PR guru who charms the local press, and an excellent Emile Hirsch as a disinterested lay-about Milk converts and molds into a fiery protégé, much to Scott’s disdain. Standout though is Josh Brolin, who in providing the political opposition as fellow city official Dan White continues to quietly transform himself into a bona fide star.

At first unsure what to make of Milk, White offers a tentative alliance and walks the tightrope of a man caught between (as far as Milk’s concerned) a few latent tendencies of his own and the bullying municipal workers that make up his constituency who see him as the great white hope to take back their city for them.

Also to be commended is Van Sant who exhibits a surprising amount of dispassion and objectivity toward his hero, unafraid to matter-of-factly exhibit some of the less than flattering aspects of Milk’s character. With Scott gone Milk found comfort with troubled youth Jack Lira (Diego Luna) from whom Milk found time enough to take his pleasure, but never time enough to save the disturbed boy from his own demons leading to tragic consequences.

A good man with good intentions, Milk was quick to realize the benefits of the political game. Wielding the power of the gay vote to the incumbent mayor, Milk bought local political protection from Bryant and her senator allies. Stringing along White while it suited him, setting up what in his mind was a small betrayal but one that would ultimately cost him his life.

With not a trace of the theatrical flamboyance that’s dogged him for some years, this is a magnificent return to form from Penn who, along with last year’s directorial effort Into the Wild, can count this as some giant strides taken back in the direction of just being Sean Penn again, and not trying to be “Sean Penn.”

Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Diego Luna

Director: Gus Van Sant

Runtime: 128 Minutes

Distributor: Focus Features

Rating: R

Read more about: