“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door,” Harvey Milk once said.

For lovers of progress and civil rights, this past November’s election was a bittersweet moment. For just as the first black person was elected president—an event of momentous symbolic import—so too was Proposition 8 passed in California, a setback for those in the gay rights movement who have long fought for equality and legitimacy.

It’s unfortunate that the new biopic about Milk—the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the US—Milk, couldn’t have come out sooner. Because of the similarities between Barack Obama and Milk—each a hope-inspiring candidate who vowed to fight for all of his constituents rather than just the minority with whom he was so tightly linked—it’s quite possible that the film could have swayed those who revered Obama but remained uncertain about gay issues. Thus, it could have also made a difference on the fate of Prop 8.

Still, equality can’t be had in a single election but, rather, by long-term cultural change.

Milk is exceptionally well-directed—it displays near-perfect dramatic tone and masterful synthesis and fluidity—by Gus Van Sant, the man behind My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting and, most recently, a series of highly stylized films about alienation and violence in the lives of American youth that includes Elephant and Paranoid Park. Milk was written by Dustin Lance Black, who penned eight episodes of the HBO series Big Love, a show about a Mormon polygamist family, and who, thankfully, never tries to psychologize Milk’s (Sean Penn) heroism by rummaging through his youth. He covers “The Mayor of Castro Street’s” life, instead, in non-idealized form, from his first encounter, in 1971 on the eve of his 40th birthday, with his future lover, Scott Smith (James Franco), to his repeated and eventually victorious runs for San Francisco city supervisor, aided by his trusted staff (Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill), to his eventual assassination in 1978, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, at the hands of disgruntled fellow supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin).

But it also certainly draws on The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein’s exquisite, Oscar-winning 1984 documentary, which covers much of the same material. Milk (which was shot on location in San Francisco) even opens with the same footage of Diane Feinstein announcing Milk and Moscone’s death.

It seemed inconceivable that a Hollywood biopic could approach the power of the documentary and, yet, though Milk doesn’t quite resonate with the same force as Epstein’s masterpiece, it does do what historical drama does best—it gets one into the intimate spaces that only an imagined account can. Milk is as good as this type of film can be.

Sadly, much of the talk that surrounds Milk is not about the issues Milk’s brave, idealistic and complicated life raises. Most people talk, instead, about the film’s Oscar prospects, particularly those of Penn. It’s quite a stunning turn: both a spot-on, essence-capturing impersonation and a riveting range of true-feeling emotions. He’s a near shoo-in at this point. As far as Best Picture goes, Milk stands a good chance there as well, though it’s clearly much too early to tell.

Who knows when we’ll have our first gay or lesbian president or, for that matter, our first female, atheist or Muslim one? But what Obama and Milk and every candidate from a once-marginalized minority show us is that what was once inconceivable can indeed come to pass. And as Milk said, “You’ve got to give them hope.”

At 7 pm on Friday, Dec. 12, UA DeVargas (562 N. Guadalupe St., 505-988-1775) holds a special celebration of the opening of Milk. Mayor David Coss will be onhand to discuss the life of Harvey Milk as well at the impact of California's Proposition 8 on Santa Fe. David Gardner, illustrator of the kid's book The Harvey Milk Story will also discuss the activists life. 

Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Dustin Lance Black
With Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco and Alison Pill

UA DeVargas
128 min., R