Friday, January 2, 2009
I sat through Milk with the knowledge, of course, that this dedicated, charismatic leader would be killed before the movie ended, so there was some inner resistance to getting too attached to him. Still, the incredible performance by Sean Penn left me no choice: I was totally seduced by the man's infectious enthusiasm, his compassion and his joie de vivre, as much as by his dedication to the cause that came to consume his life. The film left no question about his historical contribution to the advancement of freedom in a country that had respected it, for many of its citizens, in name only. Alas, as the passage of Proposition 8 so recently reminded us, the truth of "Milk" is as alive today as it was at the time when its hero was triumphantly elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors: we Americans gladly pay lip service to ideals that, when required to practice of our humanity, we all too easily abandon.
The film, though. In part it's the story of a rocky, life-long love affair, interrupted by Milk's realization of his mission and his single-minded dedication to the cause of gay rights. In part it's the story of that movement itself, in its raucous pioneering days in San Francisco--a time when gay men and women said Enough and protested and marched their way to the first glimmerings of the victory that still, it seems, awaits them. In part it's the story of the conflict between two men, Milk and his fellow supervisor, Dan White, whose right-wing conservatism and neurotic homophobia set the two at odds and lead, eventually, to the infamous double murder of Milk and then-Mayor George Moscone.
All three stories converge in the character of Milk, and Sean Penn's powerful portrayal of the man's human strengths and weaknesses lends them compelling credibility. I realize that it's a bit of a cliche to say that a film is about "the triumph of the human spirit," but the well-worn cliche does capture something of the essence of "Milk." As a audience, we are captivated by the sheer force of this character and his beliefs. His death comes as no surprise, of course, at the end of the movie, but is no less affecting for the anticipation: there were audible sniffles in the theater all around me, and I was aware of the tears gathering in my own eyes. The solemly silent candle-light march of tens of thousands on City Hall that followed the announcement of his death was equally moving--and a vital demonstration that the spirit that was Harvey Milk lived on. And indeed lives on today. Would that he were no longer needed in our society.
I'm sitting a lot these days with that notion of service. Those who follow The Buddha Diaries will know how much it has been on my mind. Harvey Milk was by any standard a man of service, who made the most of the time he was given on this earth to create something of great and lasting value to his fellow human beings. I'm choosing to believe that our Barack Obama is a man of comparable dedication, and my hope for the coming year is that he will be able to inspire the same in the rest of us.