Dangers of the Penn
I thought I’d begin 2009 with a movie, so on its first freezing afternoon I went to see Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” starring Sean Penn in a breathtaking performance as a smart, wry gay-rights politician whose whimsical effectiveness arouses murderous ire.
Playing Harvey Milk, slain in 1978 after becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, Penn demonstrates why he’s the finest character actor around. He inhabits Milk’s vulnerability as completely as Gielgud inhabited Lear’s folly.
Even as he stands before a San Francisco gay community incensed by proposals to bar them from teaching in Californian public schools, Penn imbues Milk less with a bully-pulpit rage than a quivering indignation that speaks of the hurt of closeted sexuality.
He quotes the Declaration of Independence to refute anti-gay bigotry: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights ... . ”
It’s a powerful moment, one that brought my current obsession with Penn to breaking-point.
Was this really the same Sean Penn who’d just penned a fawning tribute to the grim Cuban president, Raúl Castro, a dictator presiding over a 50-year-old revolution that once dispatched gays to labor camps to correct their “counterrevolutionary tendencies?”
Yes, it was, despite the fact that “Milk” is precisely about the sort of grass-roots political movement that would be impossible in the Cuba of the Castro brothers, despite the fact that the “inalienable rights” of hundreds of Cuban political prisoners are trampled daily and despite the fact that the pursuit of happiness for most Cubans has been reduced to eking out an existence on $20 a month.
(Yes, I know about Cuba’s achievements in education and health care, and gays no longer face outright persecution. But even basic liberties, like the freedom to leave, are denied Cubans in the name of a socialism that allowed an ailing Fidel to hand power to the 77-year-old Raúl — the Castro dynasty’s geriatric version of revolutionary politics.)
Penn is a poor writer, as rambling as a journalist as he is disciplined as an actor. A gift for detachment is as important to the journalist as a gift for empathy is to the actor. Penn has only the latter.
His awful December cover story in The Nation has been elaborated in still more interminable form this month at HuffingtonPost.com, where Penn accuses the “mainstream media” of being “conscious manufacturers of deception,” before allowing Raúl Castro to ramble on for seven hours without a meaningful question about Cuba’s disastrous economic situation or stifling political system.
When I read the piece, I’d just returned from Cuba, where among the more prominent of Raúl’s reforms has been allowing Cubans into hotels for the first time (seriously!) and granting them access to cellphones costing six times their monthly salary.
Yet here’s Penn waxing lyrical (and delusional) about how “Raúlism was on the rise” and allowing the president to proclaim, without any comeback from our actor-journalist, that:
“I am the longest standing minister of armed forces in history. Forty-eight-and-a-half years until last October. That’s why I’m in this uniform.”
Yes, Mr. President, and that’s precisely why you should take it off and go home.
Penn, by the way, traveled to Cuba from Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela on a plane loaned by the Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Petroleum. But, says Penn, that’s like a “journalist flying on Air Force One.” He’s apparently unaware that journalists on the U.S. presidential plane pay commercial rates.
But I don’t want to quibble. Penn’s not the first leftist star seduced by revolution despite dictatorship: Simone Signoret and Yves Montand touring Eastern Europe after the Soviet bludgeoning of Hungary in 1956 comes to mind. The French left had a very hard time getting Stalin in focus, just as part of the Euro-American left cannot free itself of Castro worship. Lenin’s “useful idiots” still abound.
They are dangerous. Penn as Milk gets it. Penn the foreign correspondent flails. Certain rights are indeed inalienable, first among them freedom. No Wall Street excess or U.S. failing changes that.
I asked Christopher Hitchens, who accompanied Penn but was snubbed by Castro, why the actor was in the thrall of Castroism. “A lot of people cannot believe there is no alternative to free-market, bourgeois democracy,” Hitchens said. “It would be too bitter a pill for them to swallow if the Cuban Revolution were nothing but a cruel joke on the Cubans. Sometimes David just has to triumph over the American Goliath.”
Romance is treacherous in politics. I couldn’t reach Penn, but if I had, I would have said this: “Sean, truth is as elusive for a journalist as it is for an actor. It takes work. You should never have written that this was Raúl’s ‘first ever interview to a foreign journalist’ in 50 years. You’re no journalist.
“The Bush years have taught us the dangers of amateurism and the preciousness of freedom. Your journalism flouts those lessons even as your brilliant acting illuminates them.”
Link to article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/05/opinion/05Cohen.html