Blast switched to a 4-star review system for movies in December 2008

The greatest accomplishment of “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s film chronicling the rise and fall of the first openly gay elected official, is the director’s ability to place the viewer in the thick of it.

The openly gay Van Sant makes a movie about an openly gay politician. Is it a gay movie? Not explicitly. It’s a movie about hope, and a movie about changing the world.‚  Harvey Milk was not a veteran politician: he was a businessman when he moved to San Francisco, and became a politician because he wanted to help people.

Directed by: Gus Van Sant

Written by: Dustin Lance Black

Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco

Seen at: AMC Loews Cinema Boston Common

Running time: 128 minutes

Rated: R

Van Sant’s camera rarely shoots Milk from above, and more often than not, is placed in the middle of a throng. You are there, with the crowd. It’s as though Van Sant is in as much awe of what the politician can do as is his cabinet of young, gay outcasts.‚ You fall in love with Harvey Milk, and his murder is all the more tragic for it.

But that’s the point: Milk was trying to do some honest good for people, and he was killed for it. The tragedy of the film doesn’t hit home until the viewer is confronted by documentary footage of rivers of candle-bearing mourners, thousands strong, marching from the Castro to San Francisco City Hall – another incredibly potent reminder that the entire thing was real.

Sean Penn, an actor with whom this writer confesses little familiarity, loses himself in the role. With the use of documentary footage, old camera stock and modern filmic techniques, 1978 and 2008 get confused, and Penn disappears. It’s a masterful performance, deserving of any number of accolades. With a gesture as simple as a smile or a raise of the eyebrows, Penn, through Milk, woos the viewer just as easily as he woos the crowd.

As a film, not just a love-letter, “Milk” is supremely executed. It’s book-ended with Milk’s murder at the hands of Dan White, and follows the narrative Milk himself recorded on cassette tapes days before his death. The film is organized to doom Milk’s mission from the start.

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About The Author

Steven H. Bagley is a Blast correspondent

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