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A Powerful Voice

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Having spent much of the new millennium wandering the indie wilderness with dream-like ruminations on fallen rock stars (Last Days) and dangerously disaffected youth (Paranoid Park, Elephant), Gus Van Sant makes a temporary return to conventional storytelling with Milk, his beautiful and powerfully affecting tribute to slain gay-rights leader Harvey Milk.

Milk, of course, was more than an activist. As the first openly gay politician elected to public office in America, the self-appointed Mayor of Castro Street became the none-too-reluctant face of a movement after settling in San Francisco in 1972. Van Santís biopic traces his career from its relatively humble beginnings -- Milk opened a camera shop in the Castro shortly after moving to the Bay Area from his native New York -- to its agonizing conclusion in his City Hall office.

Although Milkís rise to prominence may have seemed disturbingly swift to those unaccustomed or hostile to the idea of gay man in office -- or, for that matter, out of the closet -- he and longtime partner Scott Smith (James Franco) endured a series of unsuccessful campaigns before Milk won his place on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.

He would serve for nearly a year before onetime colleague Dan White murdered him and Mayor George Moscone, ending the life of a man who, perhaps most famously, led the triumphant campaign against Proposition 6, which would have banned gays and their supporters from teaching in California schools.

While Milk dutifully portrays its titular hero as a courageous, groundbreaking activist, it refuses to sugarcoat his shrewd, take-no-prisoners politics. Milk himself would argue that the end justified the means, and rightly so. But there was a self-serving aspect to his crusading that Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (HBOís ďBig LoveĒ) donít ignore.

Van Santís Milk is in most respects a traditional biopic, but one that, like Elephant and Paranoid Park, makes no concession to melodrama. He is faithful to the actual timeline of events as they unfolded, right down to the moment of explosive violence that ended Milkís life. In the hands of a lesser director, the movie could have been maudlin or hagiographic, but Van Santís minimalist approach serves the material well.

For Sean Penn, who plays Milk, there will be much clamoring for an Oscar, and deservedly so. Penn seems less an impersonator of the former city supervisor than a vigorous embodiment of the man. When heís not railing against his adversaries -- White, California Assemblyman John Briggs and anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant among them -- there is a tenderness, an endearing sense of humanity in his performance that transcends even the force of his summons to action.