In the view of N.Y. Times critic A.O. Scott, Sean Penn “outdoes himself” in Milk, “playing a character different from any he has portrayed before. [But] this is less a matter of sexuality — there is no longer much novelty in a straight actor’s ‘playing gay’ — than of temperament.
“Unlike, say, Jimmy Markum, Mr. Penn’s brooding ex-convict in Clint Eastwood‘s Mystic River, Harvey Milk is an extrovert and an ironist, a man whose expansive, sometimes sloppy self-presentation camouflages an incisive mind and a ferociously stubborn will.
“All of this Mr. Penn captures effortlessly through voice and gesture, but what is most arresting is the sense he conveys of Milk’s fundamental kindness, a personal virtue that also functions as a political principle.”
For the last 25 years Penn’s name has summoned different ideas about fundamental natures — fundamentally pugnacious Irish, fundamentally contentious, fundamentally smoking no matter what the hotel rules are, fundamentally inclined to spit phlegm on the camera lenses of paparazzi jackals. You have to admit — it’s quite an achievement for Penn, even given his immense talent, to sell “fundamentally kind.”