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Dawn in Hollywood

The output of Tinseltown is already beginning to reflect a new era in America

For some US presidents, there are a handful of films that come to reflect the spirit of their tenure. Ronald Reagan is a cinch - Top Gun and Rambo: First Blood Part II tell you most of what you need to know. So, too, is George W Bush, under whom the torture-porn genre, exemplified by the Hostel and Saw series, has thrived like a greedy tumour. Others are harder to pin down, though it can't be a coincidence that gross-out comedy flourished in the Clinton era. Is it just me, or did Cameron Diaz's unorthodox choice of hair gel in There's Something About Mary reflect a common anxiety about what exactly was flying around inside the White House in the 1990s?

It's impossible to predict which films will epitomise Barack Obama's presidency, but if you're looking for titles that capture the current mood of cautious optimism, not to mention America's fluctuating sense of identity, you couldn't do better than the new pictures from Gus Van Sant and Jonathan Demme, two of that country's most humane and receptive directors.

As Obama throws open the windows of the Oval Office to dispel the tang of baby-back ribs and BBQ sauce, it is hard to ignore the echoes of this changing America in Van Sant's Milk, which celebrates the ascent of an earlier political outsider. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), America's first openly gay politician, not only leapt from the closet but hacked it to kindling behind him and urged others to take an axe to their own surplus furniture. The film charts his short but inspirational career, from unsuccessful campaigns for the post of San Francisco city supervisor in the mid-1970s to his eventual election in 1977, and his role in defeating the Proposition 6 bill, which sought to outlaw gay teachers from California's schools.

The tone of Milk is explanatory but never dry - how could it be, when its hero kicks off a rally with the words "Dear fellow degenerates . . .", or assures an opponent that he's looking forward to licking him ("In the polls, I mean")? It's no revelation that Penn is brilliant; the surprise is how fully he vanishes into the part. He speaks in a sing-song, nasal whine; his hunched posture makes him seem tiny, like a ventriloquist's dummy, but onstage he becomes grand and emphatic. Penn draws us into the hubbub, as does the film: we find ourselves intimately embedded in meetings, looking out on to the gay thoroughfare of Castro Street, even caught in a kiss between Harvey and his lover Scott (James Franco), each man in turn advancing towards the camera in an amorous blur.

Early scenes form a kind of tactical lesson for aspiring leaders. Harvey encourages successful boycotts of homophobic businesses in the Castro district, for instance, proving that you need to aim for the wallet when hearts and minds prove unresponsive. I'd like to think our own politicians could learn something from Harvey's canvassing technique, which includes calling out to passers-by: "Hey, I love the way those pants fit!" (On second thoughts: would you want to hear those words from the lips of Gordon Brown or David Cameron?)

Films about the recent, pre-Aids past can be prone to nostalgia, but the level-headed approach of Milk is established by the opening montage of archive footage showing police raiding gay bars where the patrons shield their faces from prying lenses. Van Sant doesn't pretend there wasn't fun to be found - one aerial shot shows the Castro district as a fizzing pocket of neon in the otherwise featureless night - but nor does he subscribe to the view that everything prior to Aids was Can't Stop the Music made flesh. The cinematographer Harris Savides offsets the cheesy fashions with a sober, grainy film stock, ensuring that the party atmosphere of 1970s San Francisco is evoked without being indulged. A bushy moustache, or a frizzy hairdo, goes a long way in establishing period detail; whenever two or more members of the supporting cast are on screen at the same time, it's like half-price perm day at the local salon.

Milk, which is Van Sant's first gay-themed film since My Own Private Idaho (1991), is played pretty straight - by which I mean there is little of the avant-garde flavour of his recent work, such as Elephant and Paranoid Park. Dustin Lance Black's straightforward but lively screenplay is structured around Harvey's reminiscences of his career, which he records on cassettes to be played in the event of his assassination. He was indeed shot dead in November 1978, barely a year after his election. From his earliest campaign in 1973, he received death threats, one of which we see him pinning to the fridge door, as if it were a kindergarten painting ("If you put it in the drawer," he reasons, "it just gets bigger and scarier").

In fact, his death came at the hands of Dan White (an achingly sad Josh Brolin), a fellow San Francisco supervisor stranded somewhat by the progress of civil rights, and by his inability to play the political game as acutely as Harvey. This is a film about being "out" in more than just the sexual sense: as Harvey encourages his staff to swan flamboyantly up the marble steps of City Hall, the more sheepish Dan is subtly excluded from meetings and parties. Even when he arrives to assassinate Harvey and Mayor George Mos­cone (Victor Garber), he makes his entrance shamefully, through a side window, which makes both a practical point (he's avoiding the metal detectors) and a symbolic one.

The relationship between Harvey and his eventual killer is presented tantalisingly as a friendship that almost was. Van Sant turns the echo in those names, "Milk" and "White", into a visual rhyme: in the most electrifying scene, in which Harvey encounters his drunk colleague outside a party, the men are like mirror images, with their matching side partings and steely blue suits. The framing of the scene is superbly off-beam - there's a yawning expanse of dead space above the men's heads, as though Van Sant is leaving room to accommodate their thought-bubbles, or the sword of Damocles.

The challenge faced by Milk is how to send audiences home with hope after witnessing Harvey's death, and here the structure of Black's script really pays off: it shows Harvey recording his posthumous message throughout the film, and thereby it becomes natural to end with the sound of his voice, in effect resurrecting him. It is difficult to imagine a more lucid cinematic expression of Harvey Milk's lasting influence.

Like Milk, Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married is characterised by its pressing tensions between past and future, mourning and celebration. Kym (Anne Hathaway), a recovering junkie with dagger eyes and an acid tongue, returns, not so fresh from rehab, to the family home for the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). You can feel the air change when Kym walks in; everyone is wondering not whether she will screw things up, but how. And Kym savours that - during the rehearsal dinner, she wields the microphone like an offensive weapon and announces: "I am Shiva the Destroyer, your harbinger of doom for this evening." Similarly, there is never any question that Rachel will eventually have cause at some point to fume: "It's my fucking wedding!" but viewers might care to make their own sport by predicting how many minutes into the film this outburst will occur.

Rachel Getting Married is loose and free-form, like a home movie, but without the abrasive choppiness of, say, a Dogme film. (The characters provide all the abrasive choppiness you could want.) Declan Quinn's seemingly weightless camera glides around the sprawling house and grounds of this liberal Connecticut family as coloured light bulbs are strung up in the garden and the marquee is raised. (It's like watching the set being assembled in Demme's Talking Heads film, Stop Making Sense.)

Demme has filled this bustling picture with the things that matter to him: crazy decor and tacky Americana; people in all their loopiness; Debra Winger, making a brief but formidable return; and music, lashings of music, pouring out of the cast, the various bands (rock, reggae, world music) at the wedding party, and from on-screen performers strolling like minstrels from room to room. But, as in Milk, there are also caveats and sour notes that Demme does not pretend can be negated by a hopeful ending.

Like the insatiably multicultural soundtrack, the marriage between Rachel and her African-American fiancé, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), is one of those unstressed, effortless markers of harmony that characterise Demme's work. But Rachel Getting Married is significant, rather than merely impressive, because it gives the lie to the idea, perpetuated by most Hollywood cinema, and in some of the more simplistic coverage of the recent US election, that getting along with one another is all it takes. It isn't everything - though it's a start. One of the guests at Rachel's wedding puts it nicely, with a kind of inarticulate articulacy: "Without love . . ." he says, groping for an explanation that isn't needed. "Y'know?"

"Milk" (15) and "Rachel Getting Married" (15) are both released on 23 January

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?