On the surface, Milk isn't a terribly complicated film. Whatever complexity it has is revealed subtly, intermittently. As a description of the final eight years of Harvey Bernard Milk's life, it's fairly accurate. The screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black—Mormon-raised and a former writer and producer on the Mormon-themed, critically lauded television series Big Love—pretty much follows the standard biopic formula: subject grapples with self, finds self, becomes a public self, weathers controversy, triumphs personally and/or professionally, and then dies. Black's attempts to dress up this schema in the gay trappings afforded by his subject do nothing to meaningfully pervert the form—or Milk's emotional tidiness.
We watch, with varying degrees of interest, as Sean Penn, in the title role, rises from opera-loving, affable San Francisco merchant to be one of the first openly gay politicians elected to public office in the US. Though the film's emotional trajectory may bear no outward resemblance to, say, Steven Spielberg's Schindler morphing from playboy to savior, the moral message is essentially the same: the road to redemption is paved by good works.
But Black and Gus Van Sant, who directed Milk, have something Spielberg and his team didn't: their hero's martyrdom.