Harvey Milk, the first openly gay American voted into major public office, liked to joke that he'd never make it to 50. And, of course, he was right. A transplanted New Yorker elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977, Milk had one year in office before he and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by supervisor Dan White, a Vietnam vet, ex-cop and firefighter who felt that the city was being forcibly taken away from traditional families like his. Despite the foregone nature of the story, Sean Penn and director Gus Van Sant have created a suspenseful, moving and absorbing biography in "Milk."

The film is a passionate history lesson, a broadside in favor of gay rights and the engaging story of one flawed but courageous man. Its framing device shows Milk dictating his will into a tape recorder, and reminiscing about his turbulent life. To say that it was a mixture of triumph and tragedy sounds trite, but it's accurate. Milk was insecure about his attractiveness and age, and repeatedly chose unstable partners. He nearly lost three lovers to suicide, and in the film he ascribes their attempts to prejudice and social ostracism.

To help us recall the attitudes of those times, Van Sant opens the film with newsreel footage of frightened, humiliated men being handcuffed in police raids on gay bars. Milk's ceaseless work to bring gay citizens out of the closet and to organize them to vote, recruit political allies and stand up for their rights created a lasting legacy of social change. When confused and isolated young gay men contacted the famous politician for advice, he acted as a sensitive mentor. His interactions with those troubled souls put the lie to the icebreaker joke he used whenever he addressed a suspicious crowd: "Hello, I'm Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you."

San Francisco was a magnet for disenfranchised gays, and Milk was the first to successfully rally that political power base. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black shows the painstaking process of building coalitions, pressing on despite losing election after election, and fashioning popular proposals that have nothing to do with your highest agenda.

Penn cements his reputation as one of America's great actors in the title role. He offers a breathtaking performance that is historically accurate and psychologically probing. We meet Milk on the eve of his 40th birthday, a closeted nebbish without a single accomplishment he's proud of. Penn gives Milk winsome charm and self-deprecating humor, crinkling his face into an expression that is 90 percent grin, 10 percent wince. The film follows his slow climb from local politics to national fame, a climb that earned him many enemies and anonymous death threats. As politics became his passion, he also lost his strong, stable lover, Scott Smith (James Franco), and took on damaged immigrant Jack Lira (Diego Luna) with disastrous results.

Milk's finest hour comes as he debates state Sen. John Briggs over a 1978 ballot initiative to fire gay and lesbian teachers from California's public schools. "If it were true that children mimic their teachers," Milk quips, "we'd have a hell of a lot more nuns running around."

Three weeks after the Briggs initiative was voted down, White, who had recently resigned from the Board of Supervisors and unsuccessfully appealed to the mayor for reappointment to his seat, climbed through a City Hall basement window and fatally shot Moscone and Milk. White served five years for voluntary manslaughter based on diminished capacity (the contention that his junk food diet was a contributing factor became known as "the Twinkie defense").

Van Sant, who can be almost impenetrably artsy, operates in naturalistic mode here. He painstakingly re-creates seedy late-1970s San Francisco, from the candlelight mass marches down to the unfortunate hairstyles and appalling eyeglasses. And he draws commendable work from his actors; Milk's clique of political supporters are nicely individualized despite limited screen time.

Josh Brolin plays White as a man incapable of evolving in changing times, threatened by his rival's success and a rising tide of acceptance for homosexuals. Brolin carries himself like a drunk with a stomachache, which seems exactly right. The film's only serious stumble is the implication that White also was motivated by a repressed sexual attraction toward his political nemesis, Milk, a notion that feels implausible and dramatically unnecessary.

That misstep aside, "Milk" is a compelling portrait of a man, a place and an era that remain relevant and controversial today.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186