“Conflicted excitement” sums up my reaction to Gregg Goldstein‘s Hollywood Reporter story about Sean Penn being favored by director Gus Van Sant to portray the late Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was shot to death (along with SF mayor George Moscone) in ’78.

Penn will give the part hell, of course, but it feels like an odd call. He doesn’t look like Milk in the least (he’s at least a foot too short) and there’s something about Penn’s gruff Irish machismo vibe that doesn’t feel like a good fit. But it’s an intriguing prospect. Good acting is about transformation, and Penn has shown time and again he knows a thing or two about this.

Matt Damon is attached to play Dan White, the San Francisco supervisor who shot Milk and Moscone but was given a light manslaughter sentence (which outraged the city’s gay community, to put it mildly) and who later committed suicide. Damon seems exactly right for White (he gets working-class guys), although his participation in the Van Sant film is on the iffy side, according to Goldstein.

Michael London‘s Groundswell Prods. is financing the film, and Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks are producing from a script by Dustin Lance Black. Goldstein is reporting that “the filmmakers are now in talks with a leading specialty division to launch the project,” and that once a deal is in place the untitled feature “hopes” to begin shooting in San Francisco as early as December.

The idea, in part, is to beat Bryan Singer‘s in-the-works Milk biopic, The Mayor of Castro Street, which producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron will produce from a rewritten script by Chris McQuarrie. Warner Independent and Participant Productions will co-finance. I suggested a while back that Adrien Brody — a dead-ringer for Milk — would be a great casting choice on Singer’s part.