Director marshals standout perfs from his actors

Gus Van Sant has waged war on two successful fronts in his film career, taking on more mainstream missions (“Good Will Hunting”) side by side with stealth avant-garde exercises (“Paranoid Park,” “Elephant”).

But wherever he goes, Van Sant manages to marshal standout performances from his thesps, whether it is Nicole Kidman in “To Die For” or then-newcomer Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting” or Sean Penn as gay activist/politician Harvey Milk in the new film “Milk.”

With the sweeping political biopic, Van Sant launches perhaps his most ambitious film, one that recalls his earlier character-driven triumphs (“Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho”) but on a broader scale.

Trophies: Cannes Palme d’Or; National Society of Film Critics

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