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Review: 'Milk'

Biopic about the first openly gay man to hold a major political office in America is bolstered by Sean Penn's superb performance as Harvey Milk.

Sean Penn stars as real-life gay rights icon Harvey Milk in director Gus Van Sant's MILK, a Focus Features release.

Courtesy of Phil Bray / Focus Features

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San Francisco City supervisor Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to hold major political office in America. In 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, he was shot dead in City Hall by Dan White, an unbalanced fellow supervisor.

"Milk," which stars Sean Penn, is about the last eight years of Milk's life, and it's less a biopic than a call to arms. As directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Dustin Lance Black, it's an attempt to both humanize and canonize the martyred activist. Essentially the film is saying that, at a time when civil rights for gays are still under attack, there is no one of Milk's charisma on the scene to lead the charge.

The excellent Oscar-winning 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" did a much better job of bringing his story to life than this dramatized hodgepodge, which mixes fictional footage with snatches of newsreel clips from the era. We keep getting yanked back and forth between the actual and the virtual, and the actual wins out just about every time. (There is no way, for example, for Van Sant to compete with the famous live TV clip of Dianne Feinstein outside City Hall breaking the news of the shootings, so he wisely doesn't try.)

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