Milk opens Friday in select theaters

Milk is a necessary film that’s long overdue. The latest from Gus Van Sant is the story of Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist and San Francisco city supervisor who was slain by a colleague in 1978.

As a biopic of an iconic figure, it manages to be noble without being full of itself, while providing plenty of the little pleasures of movie-going: great clothes, extras and documentary simulations that blend with archival footage of the glory days of the Castro, the historic gay neighborhood in San Francisco in which the movie takes place. Cinematographer Harris Savides gives the surface of Milk a powdery layer of dust that gives the film the same dug-from-a-shoebox feel that intimate photos of that era have. Evoking the ’70s seems effortless here, and it’s pleasing to spend time in this milieu of flannel and mustaches.

Milk is a rallying cry for those already “recruited” (as Milk himself might jokily call them) to the cause of gay rights, and it’s accessible enough for the open-minded who might still need convincing. In this film, it’s startling and saddening to watch reactionary movements strike down progressive legislation because, of course, the same thing is happening today. The poignancy of Milk in this regard cannot be overstatedthe fight still needs fighting. In a brief scene where Harvey demands his staff come out to everyone they know, I was moved and surprised to realize I’d never thought about how emotionally unworkable the lives of closeted homosexuals must be. It sounds almost trite to hear myself think it, but Milk reminds us that it shouldn’t be so damned hard for anyone to be himself.

There’s no need to talk about how good Sean Penn is in the title role, as plenty of people will do so as the Oscars approach. I was more impressed with Josh Brolin’s wounded performance as Milk’s nagging and defensive fellow city supervisor Dan White, the man for whom the “Twinkie defense” would be invented. Surprisingly sympathetic, the film slyly suggests that White’s real problem might be that he’s gay but would never let himself know it. Call it the closet defense.

Van Sant is a wily director who has made off-kilter classics (My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy) as well as Oscar-friendly fare like Good Will Hunting. He has spent the past six years making a series of mini-masterpieces (from Gerry to Paranoid Park)mostly with Savidesobsessive films shot in relentlessly long takes that heighten the mundane until they obliterate the very idea that there could be any place or human interaction not worth watching carefully. He seems the perfect director for a film about Milk, someone who challenged his contemporaries, peers and followers to reach a new consciousness, much the way Van Sant has been challenging himself and his audience with his recent work. But in Milk, he uses a familiar structure, working from a script that couches the story in a superfluous voiceover and that pushes the action through so rapidly that it works against Van Sant’s great talent for inhabiting a place (a desert, a high school, a house in the woods) and examining it with as much texture and feeling as possible.

Van Sant couldn’t be expected to make Milk in the image of his more experimental films (which usually span a day or two, not eight years), but such an inventive, singular talent should be able to break from the overripe conventionsa suicidal kid in a wheelchair, a back story that readily provides motivationthat we see here. There are traces of the brilliant Van Sant: the way he and Savides follow Brolin the assassin down a hall, the way they followed students in Elephant, is eerie in its calm pacing and steady eye. But he doesn’t give Milk much of this unsettling poetry, and ultimately the longish shot following Brolin is just a reminder that Van Sant’s made much more exciting stuff than this.

In the first act of Milk, Harvey is told by the publisher of a prominent gay magazine that gays can’t both come out and run for public office, that Harvey should downplay his homosexuality for the public. But Harvey’s eventual election, and the lives he changes by giving his platform the hard sell, show that you don’t have to play to the audience to make change. Milk’s familiar, unfortunate framework puts it in the publisher’s camp, not Harvey’s. While serving the cause, Milk is a straight movie (if you blink you’ll miss the sex scenes), one that should have been out ahead of the curve, not riding along it.

Van Sant has made an admirable movie that gives adequate emotional weight to its message, and I hope it wins more Oscars than they can give out in February. But it’s not the film it could be, not the film Van Sant is capable of making, someone whoin his last four filmsseemed to have been trying to figure out a new cinematic language for himself. Milk plays so carefully to as big an audience as possible that it betrays its very subject matter.