Though it doesn’t pack quite the same emotional punch as its non-fiction predecessor, Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, Milk nevertheless proves effective at telling the inherently fascinating story of San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), spurred on by the realization that he’s wasted his life, impulsively moves to San Francisco’s Castro District with his boyfriend (James Franco’s Scott Smith) and subsequently decides to run for public office after becoming involved with a myriad of social initiatives. Director Gus Van Sant has infused the early part of Milk with a number of egregiously ostentatious visual choices that effectively keep the viewer at arm’s length from the material, with the filmmaker’s experimental proclivities often threatening to drown out the movie’s myriad of positive attributes – including the uniformly strong work by a supporting cast that includes, among others, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and Josh Brolin (the latter is particularly effective as Milk’s nemesis, Dan White). The flabby midsection ultimately gives way to an expectedly engrossing stretch revolving around Milk’s infamous Proposition 6 battle, however, and there’s little doubt that the movie finally becomes the compelling drama one might’ve initially envisioned. It’s stirring stuff that effectively allows the viewer to overlook the rampantly uneven vibe, with the end result an effort that’s never quite as powerful as its lead performance.

*** out of ****

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