The China Syndrome, Wall Street and even Casablanca are examples of movies that happened to be in the right place at the right time -- that is to say, life imitated art (or vice versa) as each picture's release neatly dovetailed with real-life incidents that in one way or another mirrored what was happening on-screen. Milk follows suit: Although it's set in the 1970s, it couldn't possibly be more relevant.
For that, we have to blame those hideous anti-gay measures that recently passed in California, Florida, Arkansas and Arizona. Back in the '70s, Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn) fought against similar hysteria. Milk was tired of homosexuals such as himself being treated as second-class citizens -- even in the supposedly liberal city of San Francisco, where he settled -- and he found himself drawn to political office as a way in which to fight for equality. It took several attempts, but he finally became the first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States. Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he continued to grow in stature and influence, a career ascendancy which did not sit well with Dan White (Josh Brolin), the board's most conservative member -- and, as it turned out, its most trigger-happy.
The Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk offered a flawless look at the career of this passionate progressive, so it's a testament to the richness of Gus Van Sant's direction and Dustin Lance Black's screenplay that this fictionalized version feels authentic in its every movement. Like Good Night, and Good Luck. (another movie exploring right-wing zealots and their convenient scapegoats), Milk expertly mixes archival footage (including interviews with that odious homophobe Anita Bryant) with the dramatic recreations, and the climactic candlelight vigil -- one of the most stirring sights in 20th century American history -- is so expertly handled that it's inspiring in both its artistic expression and its emotional impact.
As Milk, Penn delivers the performance of his career, and he's backed by a superlative cast containing only one weak link: Diego Luna as Milk's insecure lover, Jack Lira (James Franco fares much better as Harvey's previous lover, Scott Smith). But this is a small misstep in an otherwise excellent production. Full of both passion and purpose, Milk is clearly one of the year's best films.