Like many others in the crowded Manhattan theater where I saw Gus Van Sant’s Milk, I was teary-eyed during the film’s emotional finale. Yet I still could not help but feel a certain ambivalence creeping inside me. The images were powerful: both staged reenactment and documentary footage of the thousands who marched, candles in hand, down Castro Street in memory of the slain Harvey Milk, the country’s first openly-gay public official. As a gay man who, like others, has found a certain amount of inspiration in the gumption, tenacity, and genuinely big-hearted spirit that Milk brought to his public life and service, the endless stream of flickering candles—conveying both the tragic delicacy of human life and the breadth of public solidarity of the deceased—struck a deeper chord in me than similar images in similar biopics have in the past. And yet this sense of familiarity never quite escaped me. I have seen images like these before in other movies about inspirational politicians or leaders or social rabble rousers who were slain while serving their cause. Such movies often end with a rousing speech given before a large crowd, or simply a parting shot of the thousands of anonymous faces whose lives were forever changed by the life and work of the film’s subject. By ending on this note of sober uplift, the film both enshrines its subject and comforts the viewer with community, ensuring that the tears shed within the movie theater are matched by those wept on screen.
And this kind of bothered me, for reasons that graft personal experience onto aesthetic quality. As the out-and-proud queer in me swooned at the experience of watching the story of a smart, funny, and lovable gay man achieve success and historical significance, told without apology or hand-wringing, the (queer) film lover in me naturally assumed that such a difference in content would be accompanied by rule-breaking choices in form. This expectation would seem partially justified by the involvement of Van Sant, a man who has proven he knows a thing or two about wedding queer experience with daring aesthetic strategies. When this didn’t happen—when Milk merely turned out to be a brilliantly acted, emotionally absorbing, and genuinely inspiring traditional biopic, and one of my favorite films of 2008—the problems of mixing one’s identity politics and cinematic evaluation inevitably crept in. Was I less skeptical of Milk’s relatively standard biopic tactics because of its message of hope and queer empowerment, or was I more skeptical because I wanted those messages to be delivered in a manner that matches their particular contours and rough edges? Well, yes and yes.