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Milk, Sean Penn

Focus Features

Review in a Hurry: Milk does a moviegoer good. Sean Penn flirts with Oscar in his passionate portrayal of slain activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man voted into public office. Though set in the '70s, this biopic couldn't be more relevant—or more powerful.

The Bigger Picture: Director Gus Van Sant has got his groove back. After a string of frustrating head-scratchers (including that shot-for-shot remake of Psycho), he's reached a new career high with a film that proves a perfect (gay) marriage of auteur and material.

The pic chronicles the last eight years of Milk's life, starting in New York on his 40th birthday. Seeking direction and purpose, Milk (Penn) moves to San Francisco with boyfriend Scott (James Franco) and opens a small business in the Castro district. After witnessing growing bigotry and violence against gays, Milk delves headfirst into politics, running for office three times before scoring a city supervisor seat in 1977.

At the same time, holier-than-thou hatemonger Anita Bryant—spokeswoman for Florida orange juice and homophobia—leads a nationwide antigay crusade. Milk's fight against a proposed referendum to fire gay schoolteachers and their straight supporters earns him many fans but a few enemies, too, including fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), who assassinates Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber).

Though working with a more mainstream narrative and an A-list cast, Van Sant still maintains an independent, subversive vibe, never Hollywoodizing these outsider crusaders. He also creates an authentic period look and feel, with help from a top-notch production team (yay, no faky facial hair!) and by seamlessly integrating archival footage.

Brolin strikes a tricky balance between sympathetic, sinister and even amusing—watch for his great, revealing drunk scene. But highest marks go to Penn, who illuminates the, well, rainbow spectrum of Milk's complex character and career. His total-immersion performance is fearless, charismatic and nothing short of superb.

Even if you're not a friend of Dorothy, you should be a friend of Milk.

The 180—a Second Opinion: Why in Cher's name wasn't this released before Nov. 4? Milk's message of equality might've persuaded more voters to defeat California's discriminatory Proposition 8—against gay marriage—as well as antigay measures in other states.