Sean Penn, in

Dir. Gus Van Sant
(R) ★ ★ ★ ½

I debated myself on the way home from Milk. I took notes full of stylistic criticisms and disappointments, and soon I was almost convinced I hadn’t seen a very good film. However, I knew I had seen a very good film, one that affected and galvanized me. Its story has an emotional power beyond any qualms about its aesthetics.

The film is directed by Gus Van Sant, and I think my disappointment lies with him. I recently reviewed his previous film, Paranoid Park (available on DVD), praising him for so thoroughly evoking the anxiety and remorse of a teenager responsible for the accidental death of a security guard but criticizing him for listless pacing and a story filled with loose ends.

That was the first Van Sant film I had seen since Good Will Hunting and the regrettable remake of Psycho brought him to prominence in the late ‘90s, and it seemed to better represent his personality as a filmmaker. Now I would like to stage my own Van Sant film festival, if only to better understand how the director of Paranoid Park is also the director of Milk.

Milk is a conventional docudrama. Too conventional. I was surprised to find Van Sant coloring inside the lines and wished he had strayed out of them, to evoke his subject, gay activist and California politician Harvey Milk, the way he evoked the guilt-ridden teen from Paranoid Park. An openly gay filmmaker, Van Sant has a particularly personal stake in this material, but his direction seems relatively impersonal. He tells the story with workmanlike skill, but doesn’t dig deep, remains conservative.

If I recommend the film strongly, it is more a testament to the inherent emotional heft of the material and Van Sant’s strong work with his actors. He casts Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, who in the 1970s led the charge for gay rights in San Francisco and eventually became the country’s first openly gay politician elected to major office. His rival in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Dan White, assassinated him and Mayor George Moscone in 1978, and in a famous court case argued that a junk food diet was to blame for the killings. It was known as “the Twinkie defense,” and it resulted in a conviction for the lesser charge of manslaughter; he served only five years in prison and committed suicide two years after his release.

White is not developed thoroughly by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, but his portrayer Josh Brolin and Van Sant are thoughtful in their treatment of him. Why did he murder Milk and Moscone? He resigned his post and was resentful when his request to return was declined. But the film poses that his motives ran deeper. In late scenes, Brolin’s performance hints at anger and anxiety beyond a desire to retain employment. Harvey suspects that White is closeted. We can only speculate, but the chilling momentum of the tragic finale makes me believe Van Sant could make an equally compelling companion film focusing on White.

Penn’s performance is the key to the film. He plays Milk with indefatigable good humor and a flirty charisma that ingratiates him to everyone he meets, as in an early scene where he spontaneously picks up a younger man in a New York City subway; he is Scott Smith (James Franco), who will become Milk’s lover and campaign manager. But when Penn as Milk picks up a megaphone and announces, “I know that you’re angry. I’m angry!” his furor becomes our own.

The furor lives on. Thirty years after he successfully fought Proposition 6, which would have eliminated all gay or gay-sympathetic teachers in California, he would be heartened at the progress our nation has made, and outraged at the injustices that remain, as evidenced by California’s 2008 vote in favor of Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage. Milk is a stirring film and an important one, if only to dramatize the early stages of the gay rights movement and to pay tribute to a man without whom our national progress would not have come so far so fast.

I thought of another film about the struggle for rights, an even more engrossing one, 2004’s underrated HBO drama Iron Jawed Angels, which documented the efforts and persecution of suffragist Alice Paul. These two are among many struggles, stretching back to the abolition of slavery. How slow is the American learning curve that we need continual reminders of what Milk says so succinctly in this film: “All men are created equal. No matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words.”