Harvey Milk is a folk-icon of American politics, the first out-of-the-closet gay man to be elected to public office and, later, a martyr to the cause when he was shot dead by a deranged colleague in 1978.
Gus Van Sant's loving biopic begins Milk's story on the eve of his 40th birthday when he picks up a young dude Scott (James Franco) on the New York subway and simultaneously decides to do something with his life.
He relocates with Scott to San Francisco, launching himself as "mayor of Castro Street" and friend to the marginalised. "My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you!" is his battle-cry, and plenty of citizens, gay and straight, would eventually heed it. In the title role Sean Penn, a byword for screen machismo, is counterintuitive casting, yet he commits to it brilliantly, shy and awkward at first, then a fearless trailblazer who campaigned for gay rights in the face of death threats.
As a public figure Van Sant does him full justice; as a private individual, tormented by a needy Latino lover (Diego Luna) the film is much vaguer. There are longueurs here and there, but Milk has a lot of bottle, and its tribute to his achievement is very movingly represented in the black and white archive newsreels of police raids on gays bars, with men covering their faces to protect their identities. It's strange and horrifying to see those pictures now, and to realise how recently a civilised society demonised its own. Harvey Milk was determined to make them change.