Sean Penn -- smiling? What's wrong with this picture?
Not much, it turns out.
In "Milk," Penn plays Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to a major political office. That is, until Dan White, his former colleague on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, gunned him down, along with his political ally, Mayor George Moscone.
Milk died in 1978. His fate was hardly a surprise, especially to him -- an out-of-the-closet, in-your-face crusader delighted to exploit an issue, from beer boycotts to doggy-doo litter laws, if it would help him promote gay rights.
If you've seen the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk," you've already seen the definitive cinematic account of Milk's political life and martyrdom.
For all those who haven't, however, "Milk" not only showcases Penn's standout performance but offers a timely introduction to a pivotal public figure.
Indeed, the introduction could hardly be timelier, considering what happened last month when California voters approved Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriages.
In "Milk," the California ballot measure in question was 1978's Proposition 6 -- an initiative that, if it had passed, would have prevented gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools.
(Full disclosure: Then-California State Sen. John V. Briggs, who introduced what was known as the "Briggs Initiative," represented Orange County and was a frequent subject of articles in my hometown newspaper, the long-gone Daily News Tribune of Fullerton. I wrote some of those articles. And, just to prove that all roads really do lead to Las Vegas, Briggs now reportedly resides in Southern Nevada.)
As "Milk" illustrates, Harvey Milk never set out to be a political rabble-rouser.
In the movie's opening moments, we see him facing his 40th birthday, a nebbishy insurance guy gamely trying to pick up young, hunky Scott Smith (an endearing James Franco) in a New York City subway station.
Later, as the couple share birthday cake in bed, Harvey laments that he's never done anything significant in his 40 years.
Desperate for a change -- of scene, of life -- Harvey and Scott move to San Francisco's Castro District, a working-class Irish neighborhood transformed by thousands of gays and lesbians who flocked there in the late '60s and early '70s.
As proprietors of a camera store that triggers hostility from longtime Castro business owners, Harvey and Scott gradually become involved in local issues -- especially ones that involve discrimination against gays.
Because nobody else seems particularly inclined to do so, Harvey picks up a megaphone, forges local alliances (with everyone from union leaders to seniors) and starts leading the parade.
Make that the crusade, becoming so successful that people start calling him the "Mayor of Castro Street."
Until San Francisco stops having at-large elections for its Board of Supervisors, however, it's unlikely Harvey ever will win citywide office. (Which, naturally, doesn't stop him from trying.)
Once district elections begin, however, Harvey finally breaks through -- with the help of hustler-turned-activist Cleve Jones (a live-wire Emile Hirsch, whom Penn directed in "Into the Wild") and campaign veteran Anne Kronenberg (sardonic Alison Pill).
Also winning election: conservative Catholic Dan White (Josh Brolin). A former firefighter, the solid, stolid White seems to consider himself the last bastion of traditional family values on a governing body dominated by Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) and his freewheeling liberal allies -- especially Milk.
Echoing "The Times of Harvey Milk's" overall structure, "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (TV's "Big Love") concentrates on Harvey's political life, not his private one -- which sometimes throws the movie off-kilter. (Especially when Diego Luna shows up as Scott's looney-tunes successor in Harvey's distracted affections.)
Director Gus Van Sant, meanwhile, downplays his experimental, stream-of-consciousness style (on display in such art-house favorites as "Elephant") in favor of his mainstream "Good Will Hunting" mode. And if that makes "Milk" more approachable, it's a smart move; the movie's matter-of-fact depiction of gay lives (and its heroic, slo-mo re-creation of the title character's death) seem very much in line with Hollywood-biopic standards.
The performances, fortunately, do not.
As the sliding-into-darkness White, Brolin continues a remarkable string of top-flight work (from "American Gangster's" dirty cop to "No Country for Old Men's" good ol' boy on the run to George W. Bush in "W."). He chillingly suggests the turmoil beneath White's seemingly genial exterior -- and hauntingly leaves it to us to figure out just what's triggering that turmoil.
As for Penn, who usually revels in what Woody Allen once called "total heavyosity," he seems more relaxed and engaging than he's been in years. (Maybe even since his 1982 breakthrough as stoner-for-the-ages Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High.")
Smiling, witty and playful, but with a restless undercurrent, Penn's Harvey Milk is no saint. Nobody with that kind of ambition ever is. But in revealing his ambitions, Penn also captures Harvey's surprised delight that he can change things -- and, more importantly, can inspire others to join the crusade.
Some three decades later, Harvey Milk's example still inspires -- as does "Milk."
Contact movie critic Carol Cling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0272.