Gus Van Sant’s squarest work since Finding Forrester, Milk turns out to be that rare, heartfelt biopic disinterested in egregious chronological compression or psychological reductiveness. Gone is the avant-garde experimentation that characterized much of Van Sant’s previous decade, here replaced by an uncomplicated – if nonetheless finely crafted – aesthetic that conventionally and empathetically considers its trailblazing subject’s final eight years, during which he (Sean Penn) became disillusioned with his mundane 9-to-5 NYC existence and, in 1972, moved to San Francisco’s burgeoning gay mecca, the Castro District, in search of a greater purpose. His subsequent campaigns for public office – culminating in his successful 1977 run for City Supervisor, making him the country’s first openly gay elected official – forms the nucleus of Van Sant’s film, a saga whose only excessive embellishment is an operatic Danny Elfman score that italicizes the true story’s importance. Otherwise, save for a few auteurist from-behind tracking shots (including a late one that eerily echoes Elephant), Van Sant mostly sticks to the facts, a tack that mercifully keeps the proceedings (aided by some expertly integrated archival news clips) from devolving into self-righteous mawkishness. Penn’s performance similarly avoids cheap awards-baiting theatrics; his flamboyant mannerisms and earnest proclamations of belief are infused with a respectful humanism, with the actor consistently striving for accuracy and honesty rather than saintly lionization. The same largely holds true for the rest of the supporting cast’s turns, including a rather unbearable one by Diego Luna as Milk’s insecure, clingy, unstable boyfriend Jack. From its loving portrait of 1970s San Francisco (its outrageous fashions treated nonchalantly and its story free of the usual period-music montages) to its even-handed treatment of Milk’s assassin, city government colleague Dan White (Josh Brolin), Milk engenders engagement through unfussy directness, a quality that also allows its piercing present-day parallels – Milk’s repeated calls for “hope,” and his fight against a California proposition aimed at criminalizing homosexuality – to resonate with the force of a ten-ton hammer.