Sean Penn as the title character Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s excellent Biopic, “Milk.”

by Bill Wine

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

On a 1978 morning, disgruntled politician Dan White climbed through a City Hall window and assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, then shot and killed City Supervisor Harvey Milk.

That’s the climax of 2008’s “Milk” — the first mainstream gay-themed film since 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” — a terrific bio-drama and real-life period piece that’s nonetheless timely as it examines the civil rights movement from the perspective of the gay rights movement, focusing on the first openly gay man to be voted into public office in America, a pioneer of the gay movement in San Francisco in the 1970s.

Harvey Milk was the gay politician, the inspirational pioneer from the Castro district, San Francisco’s famously gay neighborhood, where his camera shop doubled as his campaign headquarters once he entered local politics and began galvanizing San Fran’s gay populace. 

Nominee for Best Actor Sean Penn stars as title character and narrator Milk, who would become the first openly gay city supervisor in 1977 and in 1978 be assassinated after 11 months in office by White, played by Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Josh Brolin.

This is easily among Best Director nominee Gus Van Sant’s very best work, nominated for eight Oscars.  The fine chronological screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, which won him the Original Screenplay Oscar, restricts itself to the last eight years of Milk’s life, which ended when he was 48.  And Van Sant keeps the film, with its impressive sense of both time and place, flowing smoothly from year to year, locale to locale, election to election, confrontation to confrontation, and incident to incident, making effective use of archival footage whenever it helps to further the verisimilitude.

Best Actor Oscar winner Penn is, in a word, magnificent, a gentle demeanor replacing his often pugnacious energy.  His is a nuanced, picture-perfect portrait of an intelligent and endearing guy with a gift of gab, a sense of humor, a bundle of charm and low-key charisma, a New York accent, a sense of hope, and an indomitable spirit who decided to make a difference and who made his share of enemies, but who really connected to people. 

And the skilled supporting ensemble includes Brolin, Victor Garber as the mayor, and James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, and Alison Pill as Milk’s friends, lovers, and colleagues.

This is, at the very least, a fascinating history lesson about grass-roots politics, one enriched by the poignant personal portrait at its core and its theme of providing hope for the downtrodden.

Using a Penn to stir the drink, Gus Van Sant offers us a stirring, moving, and richly rewarding half-glass-full serving of “Milk.”

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.