Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Terminal Life of Harvey Milk

I’m just back from San Francisco, famous as the place where Kim Novak’s Madeleine mesmerizes James Stewart’s Scottie in Vertigo, and where Steve McQueen chases bad guys through the winding city streets in Bullitt. San Francisco’s foggy hills and gingerbread Victorians seem made for movies that walk on the dark side, everything from film noir masterpieces like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past to psychological thrillers (among them Basic Instinct and Pacific Heights) 50 years later. But San Francisco has also been the setting for its share of amiable comedies, including Time After Time, in which a time machine sends H.G. Wells to the modern-day city once lovingly known as Baghdad by the Bay.

Though movies featuring San Francisco tend toward fantasy—of either the grim or the sunny sort—the film that lodged in my mind throughout my visit is both realistic and deeply heartfelt. Milk (released in 2008) explores the life of a real San Francisco icon, politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk. The film, written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Gus Van Sant, captures the rambunctious public spirit so typical of San Francisco, where residents are quick to celebrate the city as well as their own place within its complex social fabric. The focus, of course, is on Milk, winningly played by Sean Penn, as a camera-shop owner and would-be politician who in 1978 rises to become the first openly gay person ever elected to public office in California. As a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, Milk champions the rights of gays and other minority communities, while also showing his sympathies for the working-class in general. His forthright leadership helps to defeat a statewide ballot meeaure, the so-called Briggs Initiative, that would have banned any gay person from working within the California public school system.

Milk may be popular with open-minded San Franciscans, but he makes a dangerous enemy in fellow supervisor Dan White, a former fire-fighter with a conservative outlook. On November 27, 1978, White (played by Josh Brolin) shocks the world by entering City Hall and shooting Milk and Mayor George Moscone in their offices, killing them both. (It was Dianne Feinstein, then a supervisor and now a powerful member of the U.S. Senate, who was charged with leading San Francisco in the aftermath of those tragic days.)  Though White notoriously used his addiction to junk food (the so-called Twinkie defense) to secure a light sentence, the film ends on a more hopeful note, with thousands of San Franciscans staging a candlelight vigil in memory of their fallen leaders.

In remembrance of Mayor Moscone, San Francisco erected a majestic conference center, one that has transformed the neighborhood below Market Street into a thriving cultural zone. It went up in 1981, and has undergone major expansions since. Many years passed before a building was named for Harvey Milk. But now the new Terminal 1 at San Francisco International Airport has been dedicated in his honor. I’m aware of airport facilities named after politicians, but I’ve never before seen this kind of large-scale homage to the life and career of a recently deceased local hero. In Terminal 1, huge walls are covered with Milk tributes: childhood photos, campaign posters, blow-ups of newspaper clippings, screaming banner headlines referencing his life and death.

Sean Penn nabbed an Oscar for playing Harvey Milk, and the film received 8 major nominations in all. It’s a fitting tribute to a fine American, but I’m glad airline passengers in 2020 will have a more visible reminder of the man we all lost.


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  2. I was blown away by the new Terminal 1 display. History on the walls, great pictures, and such a full-hearted tribute to Harvey Milk for all the world to see. Makes me proud of our complicated and imperfect city.