As the New Year begins, I've been thinking a lot about hope, a condition that I struggle to maintain. Some times are easier than others. Right now, with all the economic and financial market mayhem, a bitter cold winter, and a head-cold to boot, I'm a little short on hope.
But I've seen three new movies in the past three days which have inspired me a bit, because they share at least one theme: hope.
Sometimes hope leads us to take great chances, and is rewarded, as in Slumdog Millionaire, one of two films I watched New Year's Eve.
Sometimes hope leads to a greater good, as in Milk, the second film I watched New Year's Eve (before I went to dinner with friends, feeling hopeful.)
And sometimes, hope doesn't appear to have done any good at all, until it's judged by history. This might be one of the lessons of the much-maligned film Valkyrie, which I enjoyed far more than I expected. There's a triumph of hope for you.
This is a wonderful time of year for movie buffs. Great films are usually released around the holiday season, so we can feast before the Oscars. There are several this year that I've wanted to see and of the films I have seen so far, I haven't been disappointed.
I must admit that I had low expectations for Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise. It's based on a true story about an (obviously) ill-fated plot by high-ranking German military officers to assassinate Hitler. I'm a history buff and must confess that I'm interested in strategic studies, war and conflict (and peace-making and peace-keeping, the other side of that coin.)
Still, I initially chose Valkyrie because it was playing at the right time in the theatre next to my office, so when I left work early Monday it was an easy pick. The reviews haven't been great -- Cruise doesn't even try to fake a German accent to play the patriotic aristocrat Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, who becomes thoroughly disillusioned with Hitler, his war tactics and his Nazi party. But the plot is remarkably suspenseful, given the fact we all know how it will end!
It's quite fascinating to watch the conspirators devise their plan for a full coup, because they realized that after killing Hitler, they would need to take control of the government and the war effort. To this end, they implemented Operation Valkyrie, a contingency plan that had been conceived by the German military as a way to control Berlin if anything were to happen to Hitler.
The conspirators -- 200 of them in reality, although not all are shown in the movie -- were ultimately executed, and Hitler carried on. But for only about 9 more months, before he committed suicide as the Second World War was closing.
So where's the hope in all of this? Well, I would argue that the conspirators' fight to try to save their country from Hitler, despite overwhelming odds, is a story of heroism and of hope for change even if it cost them their lives. They didn't win, but at least they tried.
Slumdog Millionaire, the second film I watched during my marathon, is also about trying, and trying and trying for a better live and for love. It's absolutely gripping, told in flashbacks by 18-year old Jamal who is on a winning streak on the Mumbai TV series "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire." Incredibly, this orphan kid from the slums knows the answers to a wide range of questions, on subjects from religion to poetry to cricket, because of all the cruel, violent and demeaning twists his life had taken.
Slumdog is constantly described as a visually rich, feel-good movie. To me, that's far too simplistic. But the story is rich, believable, horrific and hopeful.
Milk, much the same. Like Valkyrie, we know how it ends. But the story that takes us there is rich.
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He fought hard for gay rights and civil rights in San Francisco itself, but also with an eye to the impact his fight would have across North America. For that, he was assassinated in 1978.
Much of the beauty of this film is in the acting. Sean Penn is remarkable as Harvey Milk, whose fight ended abruptly but whose work has inspired so many. (The above photo, from the SF Chronicle, shows Penn with extras on one of the last days of filming.)
Milk talked often about hope, the importance of giving people hope that life could be better -- for gays, for minorities, for seniors, for the disabled...."and if you help elect...more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone."
You can't do much without hope. I think that'll be my New Year's resolution.