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Director:Gus Van Sant
Cast:Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, James Brolin, Diego Luna
Release Date:2008

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/3/2008

The first half of director Gus Van Sant's moving portrait of assassinated activist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, is a fascinating mix of archival footage, historical re-enactment, and bravura acting. Newsreel footage discloses the 1978 murder of Milk and San Francisco mayor Moscone (Victor Garber) at the hands of fellow local politician Dan White (James Brolin) in the opening minutes, but also lets Milk narrate his own story from beyond the grave in a taped recording to be read in case something happens to him. It's a disarmingly effective structure, juxtaposing the lead's horrible fate against Van Sant's irrepressibly lively picture of Milk moving from New York to San Francisco in 1970 with his partner (James Franco), opening a camera store, becoming a local activist for both gay and basic human rights, and his first few unsuccessful runs for public office. Here, Van Sant's threads together various visual looks--cinematographer Harris Savides even recreates the look of aged Super8 stock--and narrative strategies (e.g., a series of stills) to capture the energy of the era. Once Milk enters public office it becomes a much more conventional movie; throughout, though, it's anchored by Penn's remarkably mimetic performance and Emile Hirsch's even better Cleve Jones. Solid.

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