Variety‘s Todd McCarthy is calling Gus Van Sant‘s Milk “a fluent return to the relative mainstream” and “an adroitly and tenderly observed account of the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man voted into significant U.S. public office. Smartly handled study of the San Francisco politician’s powerful effect on individuals and society accurately catches a moment in American political life three decades ago, but is most notable for the surprising and entirely winning performance by Sean Penn in the leading role.

“Made to more closely resemble Milk via an elongated nose, which also makes his face look narrower, the actor socks over his characterization of a man he’s made to seem, above all, a really sweet guy, but who crucially possessed the fearlessness and toughness to be a highly successful political motivator, agitator and, ultimately, figurehead of a movement.

“Penn’s Harvey is a man with a ready laugh, alive to the moment, open to life regardless of neuroses and past tragedies, and acutely aware of one’s limited time on Earth. The explosive anger and fury often summoned by Penn in his work is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a geniality that is as welcome as it is unexpected.

“Penn is also an ideal conduit for a characteristic shrewdly underlined in Black’s writing, that being Harvey’s talent for gently but firmly nudging people out of routine or complacent attitudes. Harvey knows how to tweak others with lightly provocative or stimulating comments that break the ice, and Penn lays on just the right amount of casual innuendo to make this crucial personality trait convincing.”