Biopics are notoriously difficult to strike a balance with. The recent W. was derided because of its soft approach to its much-maligned subject, while Ali was criticised for not having a broad enough scope; but Milk is a rare fact-based film that will educate and enthral its audience in equal measure. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay official to take major office in the US - proving that persistence was crucial in the dog-eat-dog world of politics by running for office three times, until he eventually won the role of city supervisor of San Francisco in 1977. Gus Van Sant paints his film with broad, engaging strokes, introducing people to Milk as he bumps into future lover Scott Smith (Franco) on the New York subway. He's self-effacing, charming and personable, qualities that make him almost instantly likeable. The relationship between Milk and Smith is really the nucleus of the film, and Van Sant is a smart enough director to realise this. The bond between the two exudes a genuine intimacy that is lacking in the vast majority of romance-tinted productions nowadays. To convey the essence of a character by watching a movie based on their life is the factor that every filmmaker aspires to when they undertake a film of this sort, and Van Sant and Penn achieve this superbly. You won't need to know a lot about the gay icon to enjoy the film, quite the opposite: you may just find yourself Googling major players soon after the credits roll, as there is only so much that can be squeezed into a couple of hours. Having Penn narrate his ascent to politics via a Dictaphone (so documentation could be used in the event of his prophetic demise) was a smart move, too, and makes it easier for Van Sant to then concentrate on building his characters. Penn is excellent, plain and simple - in fact, this may actually be the best performance he has ever given. Elsewhere, James Franco is extremely affecting in a subtle turn, while Josh Brolin chose his role bravely and knocks it right out of the park - Oscar nominations for all three thespians should be a given. Fanatastic work from all concerned, Milk begs a viewing as one of the best biopics in recent memory.
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