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Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's Milk (Focus Features)

Filmmaker Gus Van Sant leaves his usual dreamy, elliptical storytelling behind to deliver a more conventionally structured narrative about unconventional activist and politician Harvey Milk in his new film Milk (opening at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas). The film is equal parts biography and look back on the roots of gay activism. Van Sant makes superb use of archival footage to chronicle Milk's rise to political power as California's first openly gay elected official. Too bad the film didn't open before this year's election, maybe the film's plea for tolerance could have swayed some voters about Proposition 8. The film looks to an election some three decades ago in which Milk helped organize opposition to a proposition (Prop 6) that would have banned gays from teaching in California. That bill's defeat contrasts with this year's passage of a ban on same sex marriage, and the film makes you realize that some things and some attitudes have not changed and maybe even are moving backwards. Sean Penn stars as Milk and his performance seems self-conscious at first but grows in strength. Listen to the discussion about the film on this month's KPBS Film Club of the Air.

Companion viewing: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, To Die For, The Best Man

Corrected: December 11, 2023 at 1:48 PM PST
Companion viewing: "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk," "To Die For" and Gore Vidal's "The Best Man"