The key to understanding The Times of Harvey Milk is right there in the title: Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen's documentary isn't just about Milk, the first openly gay male politician in California. It is about his times--the world he was a part of, the world he left behind, and now, more than a quarter century after its release, the world that this acclaimed documentary about him was released into. It is more than a profile. It is a time capsule.
The film begins with a now-famous piece of footage: Diane Feinstein (then President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors) announcing to news cameras that her fellow City Supervisor Milk and Mayor George Moscone had been shot and killed, and that former Supervisor Dan White was the primary suspect. The response of the assembled horde is still stirring in its sheer emotion--there are audible gasps, and one unidentified man shouts, "JESUS CHRIST!" It was a shocking act; the reaction is understandable.
From there the narrative spins back, to trace Milk's life. Though the film is fairly conventional from a stylistic point of view--talking heads, biographical photos, narration (by Harvey Fierstein) and copious archival footage--the structure is somewhat unexpected. Precious little time is spent on his childhood and formative years (he's elected by the 17-minute mark), and his assassination comes 53 minutes into the 88-minute film. The net result is twofold: the filmmakers are able to adopt a traditional three-act structure, and are able to focus the bulk of the running time on his 11 months as a city supervisor.
In keying in on that particular element--not his tortured childhood, not his private life, but his public service--director Epstein is able to put across, often more successfully than the later docudrama Milk did, the dyed-in-the-wool populism of his politics. He wasn't just about gay rights; he was for the underdog. Of course, the underdog was often the gay citizen; as in Milk, much time is spent on his efforts to fight Prop 6 (aka "the Briggs initiative"), which banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools (and could even allow firing teachers who supported gay rights). Some of the best archival footage comes in this section, with Milk and activist Sally Gearhart taking on Briggs in a TV debate (and just destroying him), as well as Milk going at Briggs at a public debate and fileting the notion of homosexual or heterosexual "influence."
Epstein (and co-editor Deborah Hoffman) masterfully intercut Milk's political triumphs with the parallel rise and fall of Supervisor White, who was elected at the same time as Milk but quickly found himself frustrated by the Board. His strange resignation (and attempt to retract it) is covered in close detail, but the filmmakers step back from the assassination day itself, which is brilliantly conveyed with nothing other than frantic news footage and half-heard CB radio recordings.
The third act, then, deals with the aftermath of his death--the candlelight march, the farcical trail of Dan White (and the notorious "Twinkie defense"), and the subsequent outrage over his grotesquely inadequate punishment. Convicted on two counts of voluntary manslaughter, he served five and a half years thanks to what amounted to a temporary insanity defense, though he received no psychiatric treatment at any point in that sentence. Maybe he'd have been dealt with more harshly if he'd only killed the mayor, someone suggests. Stranger things have happened in the American legal system.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The 1.33:1 image is surprisingly sharp for a 25-year-old documentary originally shot on 16mm. There is certainly some grain present, but the interviews are nicely saturated and cleanly rendered. Some of the archival footage is in pretty bad shape (like the news report on the "doggy-doo ordinance"), but in those cases, historical importance trumps pristine quality.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track unfolds as expected--music in the surrounds, narration and interviews in the center. It's not the most dynamic track (documentaries seldom are), but the mix is clear and audible, with no issues of note.
Criterion's Blu-ray includes some (but not all) of the material from the 2004 DVD special edition, as well as a smattering of new material. First up is that disc's audio commentary track, featuring director/co-editor Robert Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffman, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta. It's a good commentary, informative and fascinating, with plenty of background on both the making of the film and their own attachments to its subjects.
"Postscript" (2:42) is something of an alternate ending, with additional comments by interview subjects Tory Hartman, Kill Kraus, Anne Kronenberg, and Jim Elliot; they ultimately went the right way, but the final beat from Elliot is sort of wonderful. Next, UC Berkeley documentary program director "John Else" (19:48) takes a beat-by-beat look at the structure and style of the picture; he's an insightful analyst, and pinpoints exactly what it is so brilliant about it. "Two Films, One Legacy" (22:57) looks at the Milk story's journey from the original documentary to the 2008 docudrama account Milk, via footage from and interviews with participants in both projects (and in the original events). It's short but fascinating, particularly in Cleve Jones's account of how the film's release was somewhat eclipsed by the sudden rise of the AIDS epidemic.
Next up is a collection of invaluable "Harvey Milk Recordings"--full audio and video tapes of Milk on the radio reacting to the Dade County repeal (13:51), speaking before the Texas Gay Conference Five in 1978 (47:34), campaigning against the Briggs initiative (2:45), celebrating the defeat of Prop 6 (10:04), and recording his "political will" in 1977 (13:18). The "Director's Research Tapes" (1:19:54) are fascinating, black-and-white videotaped interviews with potential subjects ultimately not included in the film: Milk's longtime partner Scott Smith, Bay Area Reporter publisher Bob Ross, political organizer Amber Hollibaugh, activist and former Milk intern Cleve Jones, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Lillian Sing, and Hank Wilson, co-founder of the Gay Teachers Coalition.
"From the Castro to the Oscars" features excerpts from the film's San Francisco premiere at the Castro Theatre (7:36), as well as the 1985 Oscars, where it won Best Documentary (3:06). "The Dan White Case" combines news clips about Milk and Moscone's assassin (4:05) with a 2003 panel discussion about the case (29:29), featuring his attorneys Douglas Schmidt and Stephen Scherr and deputy district attorney Jim Hammer. Next up is a moving excerpt from a speech given by "Harry Britt, Milk's Successor" (9:49) on the 25th anniversary of Milk's assassination, which was also marked with a Candlelight Memorial (7:20), at which longtime San Francisco supervisor Tom Ammiano and Moscone's daughter Rebecca spoke.
The original Trailer (3:16) is also included.
The Times of Harvey Milk is a visceral, emotional film: it taps the viewer right into its events, from the joy of the Gay Pride movement (the footage of the '70s-era Castro is vibrant and exciting) to the hope of his time in office to the sadness and then anger that followed his death. Those shots of the streets of San Francisco filled with candlelight marchers on the night of his death still give the viewer goose bumps; the fury of the "White Night Riots" is palpable and more than a little scary. The power of this film lies in those moments, in the bravado with which the filmmakers bring them to life, and make us a part of them. Those were the times of Harvey Milk, and yet, we are still living in his time.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.