Sean Penn leads fine cast in true tale of 'Frisco killings

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STARRING Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Diego Luna

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay official elected to major office in America. He was murdered, in November 1978, by fellow San Francisco city supervisor Dan White. White, a Vietnam vet and former policeman, also killed mayor George Moscone the same morning, and later blamed a junk food diet for his unbalanced mental state.

This story has been seen on screen before in Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning 1984 documentary, The Times Of Harvey Milk. But Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black flesh out the facts with eight years of personal, psychological and historical detail. Their unanimously high-calibre cast includes the increasingly impressive Brolin as White, but Sean Penn still steals almost every scene, immersing himself totally in Milk’s sardonic speech patterns and rubbery body language.

Fans of Van Sant’s experimental quasi-biopics Elephant and Last Days will probably find Milk disappointingly straight (no pun intended) by comparison. It is certainly the director’s most formally conventional film for almost a decade. This functional approach might seem arguably unavoidable, although Danny Elfman’s tearjerking score becomes intrusive.

There are niggling omissions in the story, too. White’s true motives for murder are never fully explored, but plainly ran deeper than anti-gay prejudice. Likewise Milk’s history of suicidal lovers, a shock throwaway line that’s left hanging. A little more informed speculation might have helped. Still, otherwise this is a warm, moving, non-preachy and surprisingly funny slice of contemporary history.


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