Gus Van Sant has never been what youd call a risk-adverse filmmaker, but he directs his Harvey Milk biopic so carefully, there might be a Ming vase balanced on his head. No less cautious, Sean Penn plays Milk (19301978), the martyred gay activist and San Francisco supervisor, with the concentration of an actor entrusted to portray the future subject of a U.S. postage stamp. Working from a detailed script by documentarian Dustin Lance Black, Van Sant streamlines Milks life, simplifying his trajectory from closeted Wall Street zero to out-front Castro Street hero. On the eve of his 40th birthday, Milk picks up cute hippie Scott Smith (James Franco) and, after a romantic evening in tight close-up, effectively joins the counterculture, growing his hair and eloping with Smith to San Francisco. There, they open the Castro Camera Shop and an activist is born. Happy, flirtatious, paternal, Milk was able to play politics both inside City Hall and out in the streets, and Milk turns grandly world-historical once the campaign launched by homophobic Moral Majority avatar Anita Bryant arrives in the form of Proposition 6, an initiative to purge gay teachers from public schools. The new supervisor finds himself on the front line of the Culture Wars, face-to-face with his fellow supervisor (and eventual assassin) Dan White (Josh Brolin). Milk is so immediate that its impossible to separate the movies moment from this one. The 1978 victory over Prop. 6 merges with the current struggle against Californias Proposition 8, overturning the state Supreme Courts ruling on same-sex marriage. A charismatic leader has yet to emerge but there is . . . Milk, and its wholehearted devotion to the principle of equal protection under the law.