Sean Penn in Milk
Photo: Focus Features
Milk captures the too-brief life of the first openly gay man elected to American public office. Gus Van Sant's enthralling biopic focuses on the last eight years before San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk (Sean Penn, left) was assassinated at age 48 by onetime colleague Dan White (Josh Brolin), in 1978. (White also gunned down Mayor George Moscone; the ensuing murder trial gave rise to the infamous "Twinkie defense.") Working with a terrific supporting cast (including James Franco as Milk's lover and fellow activist Scott Smith, and Alison Pill as his campaign manager), Penn nails Milk's voice and body language with uncanny accuracy. Most important, though, he conveys that warm and faintly impish charisma that helped Milk harness his community's anger, disaffection, and hope to create a formidable political force—and one that would far outlive him.

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