UK release date: 23 January 2009

cast list

Sean Penn
James Franco
Josh Brolin

directed by
Gus Van Sant
Following a lengthy retreat into the arthouse (after that Psycho remake, who could blame him?), Gus Van Sant makes his return to the semi-mainstream with the biographical story of Americas first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), and the civil rights movement he instigated in 1970s San Francisco.

Were introduced to Milk on the cusp of his political career, a successful Wall Street analyst struggling with the realisation that hes yet to do anything worthwhile with his life. Spurred further by his first encounter with longtime partner Scott Smith (James Franco), he moves from New York to San Franciscos Castro District; just one of hundreds of gay men who migrated to the area during the 70s in search of a safe haven.

He is elected city supervisor, and his reign culminates with two iconic events: the defeat of Proposition Six, which would have banned homosexuals from working in Californias schools, and Milks assassination by fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) less than a month later.

Penn gives a stirring, bravura performance; having made a career of playing tortured souls, it’s a credit to The Greatest Actor Of His Generation(TM) that he is able to fully inhabit the skin of a character who embraces life and is defined ultimately by optimism and by love rather than pain although Penns occasionally pained smile and self-deprecating humour (I know Im not what you expected, but I left my high heels at home) still speak potently to a troubled, closeted past.

Theres an enjoyable makeshift-family dynamic developed between Milk and his campaign team, with the highlight being Francos Scott, thanks to an easy chemistry with Penn and a clear progression through the film. As the playful intimacy of the lovers early relationship shifts and crumbles with the pressures of MIlks ongoing activism, so Franco hardens and matures convincingly over the films passing years, evolving from a youth to a much-needed stabilizing force in Milks life.

Brolins antagonistic Dan White, meanwhile, is a walking time bomb, a volatile blend of seething anger and wretched loneliness. His insecurity, barely masked by white-bread posturing, is nowhere more painfully clear than in his interactions with Milk who is never less than entirely comfortable in his own skin.

While the possibility of Whites being one of us is raised by Milk himself and hinted at in Brolins tortured countenance, Van Sant and scriptwriter Dustin Lance Black resist the temptation to overstate the point, leaving Whites motivations very much open to interpretation.

Cinematographer Harris Savides rendering of 1970s San Francisco is astonishing, and Van Sants graceful inclusion of genuine footage from Milks era is a stroke of inspiration – its one thing to hear an actor playing a part liken the rights of homosexuals to those of prostitutes and thieves; its another to hear it as genuinely spoken.

Of course, parallels emerge. Its difficult not to think of the passing of Proposition 8 (banning gay marriage) in California, which lends a bittersweet quality to the joyful moments on screen as Proposition 6 is defeated. How far we havent come.

Raising the bar for the much-maligned political biopic, this is a compelling story told with skill and sensitivity, fiercely emotional but steering resolutely away from melodrama and grounded by a deeply human central performance.

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