Rated 5.0

Sean Penn’s brilliantly detailed impersonation of Harvey Milk is the centerpiece of Gus Van Sant’s biopic. But Milk is also an unexpectedly entertaining drama, with plenty of charm and energy to go with its smartly deployed takes on political and historical matters. Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black follow the man’s extraordinary career through a uniquely tumultuous decade—from 1970, when Milk and his boyfriend, Scott Smith (James Franco), moved from New York to San Francisco, through Milk’s increasingly high-profile exploits as a politician and gay-rights activist in the mid-’70s, and finally on to his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the subsequent assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone. The fact of the assassination inevitably looms over the whole story, right from the start, but the film is neither as violent nor as fiercely contentious as the decade it portrays. Indeed, Van Sant seems to borrow deliberately from Harvey Milk’s own political playbook by emphasizing something like a message of hope. Pageant Theatre. Rated R