Sean Penn knows how to milk story of a pioneering gay activist

PUBLISHED: 12:01 29 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 07 September 2010

Milk (15) Director Gus Van Sant Starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsh, James Franco, Diego Luna, Alice Pill. 128 mins Three star rating Hollywood seems to have been planning a film on Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public

Milk (15)

Director Gus Van Sant Starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsh, James Franco, Diego Luna, Alice Pill. 128 mins

Three star rating

Hollywood seems to have been planning a film on Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the US, more or less ever since a bullet struck him down in his office in 1978.

At various times Oliver Stone and Robin Williams have been attached and I think we can count ourselves lucky that it has eventually rolled through to Van Sant and Penn to do the duties.

Van Sant's career has mostly divided up between cold, austere art films and sentimental commercial projects but Milk exists somewhere between the two.

Van Sant can be dispassionate about stuff like high school massacres and suicides and though Milk is filled with joy and despair, tears and laughter, it's a comparatively cold-blooded beast compared to the standard Oscar Pleader.

It's not a thrilling boundary pushing piece like Elephant or Paranoid Park but the film's grainy images capture that specific 70s feel perfectly, probably even more successfully than Zodiac did and with much less effort. The script is insightful on the politics of how minority groups impose themselves on the mainstream.

It has a clear view of who the good guys are but it isn't too sanctimonious and it doesn't steamroller you.

It has a couple of caricature old style Republican hate figures for audiences to jeer at, but his day to day council opponent Dan White (Brolin, fantastic again) is treated surprisingly equably.

It still couldn't quite shake my deeply held prejudice against biopics, but it may have to retract my one against Penn.

In the last year he has directed a truly great movie, Into the Wild, was president of a Cannes jury that actually picked a deserving winner and now gives a fantastic turn in the title role. Getting Penn to play a political activist martyr ought to be the equivalent of handing Paris Hilton a mirror, but this is one of those rare occasions when he forsakes strutting for acting.

With Penn it is all in the hair, the worse the hair the better the performance and this is his worst hairdo since Carlito's Way.


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