Even if you don't follow politics, you'll want to know the bizarre story of Harvey Milk. Even if you don't like biopics, you'll be curious about this twisted tale of triumph, turbulence and Twinkies. And even before this month's Oscars have taken place, Sean Penn is rapidly becoming a Best Actor front-runner for 2009.

"It's a bio," Penn's co-star Josh Brolin explained to us recently, on the eve of shooting the film that also features Emile Hirsch and James Franco. "I'm questioning myself, and that's exactly the position I want to be in."

These days, "Milk" is gathering huge online momentum thanks to its hot script, a cast of currently peaking actors and unauthorized videos being leaked from the set. All this hype would undoubtedly entertain the real Harvey, who made headlines in the late '70s as California's first openly gay elected official. After 11 months of advancing the gay-rights cause as a San Francisco supervisor, Milk was assassinated by troubled, conservative anti-gay politician Dan White in 1978.

"I think he's a good guy, until the end," Brolin said of White, the man he's portraying in the film. "[White] is a pathetic guy from my point of view; he's a sad guy. And he just didn't have the wit, and the smarts, and the wherewithal to see the big picture."

In a highly publicized trial for murdering Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, White's lawyer attributed his actions to the consumption of too many Twinkies. After the killer received a reduced sentence, riots erupted in the city, while thousands attended a spontaneous candlelight vigil in Milk's honor. At that event, mourners watched a precautionary message that Harvey had recorded, during which he coined a new rallying cry for his supporters: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

"This was a tough time, the end of one era and the beginning of another one," Brolin said of the angle of the film, which is being directed by "Good Will Hunting" Oscar nominee Gus Van Sant. "Harvey Milk, the gay thing ... it was a major transitional thing in San Francisco. [White] couldn't see the big picture. ... This guy can't see beyond the length of his arm. The only way he feels he can have control over anything is by shooting somebody. It's really sad."

For three decades, Hollywood has flirted with the idea of making a feature film from the stranger-than-fiction tale. The 1984 Academy Award-winning documentary, "The Times of Harvey Milk," remains a cult favorite and the definitive depiction of the man's life, but recent plans by Van Sant and "Superman Returns" director Bryan Singer (who has put his movie on hold due to the strike) are now aiming to bring Milk to the masses.

"It's compelling because of what [White] did, and how Harvey Milk came to be," added Brolin, one of Hollywood's most in-demand actors after recent roles in "American Gangster" and "No Country for Old Men." "Sean is the one who lobbied for me to do it."

Indeed, it's Penn's participation that has the film going high-profile in its early weeks. Leaked photos from the set have revealed the chameleonic actor's latest "Carlito's Way"-like transformation, while a shaky fan-filmed video has given the Web its first looks at a shouting Penn and '70s-era Hirsch.

Although the famously cranky star probably isn't thrilled about the handheld video or the commentary by the two men who shot it (they joke about Penn's turbulent days with Madonna and mistakenly refer to Hirsch as "Emilio"), buzz is already building that the November '08 release has Oscar written all over it. It will continue to shoot in San Francisco for the next several weeks.

"It wasn't a question about money and what they were offering me. ... I read it, and I said, 'I'll do it; I have to do it,' " Brolin said of the script by "Big Love" writer Dustin Lance Black. "I don't know how I'm going to do it, and I'm scared out of my mind to pull it off."

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