Friday, January 2, 2009

Milk


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.

9 comments:

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Thanks for the film review. I have been looking forward to seeing Milk for some time.

thailandchani said...

I definitely intend to see it also... as soon as it's available on Netflix :)



~*

mandt said...

Peace

robin andrea said...

We're planning to see Milk. Not sure if we'll actually go the cinema or wait for it to come out on Netflix. We hardly ever go to the movies, but we're finding it hard to wait to see this film. It's also hard to imagine that it's been 30 years since a madman decided that he should alter the course of history with a gun. I really wish people would stop doing that.

Nancy Youdelman said...

Peter, I completely agree with you about this film, it is an accurate, moving portrayal of Harvey Milk. Seeing it in the theater would be best--larger than life. Netflix has a wonderful documentary of Harvey Milk called "The Times of Harvey Milk". He was charismatic and dedicated to the cause of gay rights.

A gay friend who saw the movie said that it was "spot on" and really captured the time, especially the look and feel of the Castro district in the late 70s. This is one amazing film.

I was living in LA in 1978 but had many gay men friends, so the prop 6 threat and the Anita Bryant/Briggs farce really hit hard. Then Harvey's murder and Dan White getting a light sentence with the "twinkie defense"--it was tragic.

In a side note, it was a strange time, that November of 1978, just one week before the Milk/Moscone murders, Jim Jones of the People's Temple convinced his flock (over 900 men women & children) to commit mass suicide with cyanide laced kool-aide.

(this is a rather grim thing to mention but I always think of it when I think of Harvey Milk)

mandt said...

It is still hard to discuss the Milk years because the outrage has never died. The Twinki defense is reincarnated in Prop 8 and worse, subject to revisionist Progressive sophists wanting to 'move on.' The Milk Moscone was the gay community's Kennedy/King.

TaraDharma said...

I can't wait to see the movie - there are a lot of good ones out right now. We're going to see "The Reader" in an hour. MILK deserves the big screen (Robin) and the clips I've seen have been tremendous.

Gosh, that November, I was 21 and just married. Seems a lifetime ago. Living 90 miles south of San Francisco. Later, in 2004, I would be married in the City Hall, directly across from the Mayor's office. I can't walk into City Hall without thinking of that awful day. Marrying my wife there was sweet satisfaction.

citizen of the world said...

I am easerly waiting for this one to come out on DVD so I can rent it.

PeterAtLarge said...

I actually think this one is worth the $8 for the big screen version. It has a particular edge and urgency right now...