Criterion // 1984 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // March 22nd, 2011
"If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." -- Harvey Milk
Releasing The Times of Harvey Milk is a bit daunting now that the Gus Van Sant film Milk has nabbed an Oscar for actor Sean Penn. The story has been told well, although there is nothing like the real deal to bring us back to where it all began. This telling of the tale is a great reminder that back in 1985 Harvey Milk's legacy was already being praised by Hollywood. The groundbreaking film won for Best Documentary feature back in 1985, and it remains a testament to the man and the era he lived in. You could not ask for a more fearsomely brave portrait of Milk, San Francisco, and what it was like to be gay back in 1978. The documentary has been released in several incarnations and is even available for free on many web sites that offer it streaming as a reminder of the Harvey Milk legacy. You have to bring something new to the table if you are going to rerelease this one. Two and a half decades later the feature has been given a spectacular two DVD release, and now here comes the Blu-ray debut thanks to the Criterion Collection who has seen fit to give the movie a ton of extras and a visual overhaul. They have put together a fairly comprehensive package, and it doesn't disappoint.
The Blu-ray edition includes the following extras:
* Director-approved digital transfer from a UCLA Film and Television Archive restoration
* Audio commentary featuring director Robert Epstein, coeditor Deborah Hoffmann, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta
* Interview clips not used in the film
* New twenty minute interview with documentary filmmaker Jon Else who uses this film to show film students how to make an outstanding documentary
* New twenty minute program about The Times of Harvey Milk and Gus Van Sant's Milk, featuring Epstein, Van Sant, actor James Franco, and Milk friends Cleve Jones, Anne Kronenberg, and Nicoletta
* Rare collection of audio and video recordings of Milk
* Nearly an hour and a half of excerpts from Epstein's research tapes which feature Milk's partner Scott Smith
* Footage from the film's 1984 Castro Theatre premiere and the 1984 Academy Awards
* Vintage panel discussion on Supervisor Dan White's trial
* Twenty minutes of excerpts from the twenty-fifth anniversary commemoration of Milk's and Mayor George Moscone's assassinations
* A three minute postscript with some somber interviews on the legacy of Harvey Milk
* Ten minute speech by Harvey Britt at the 25th anniversary of the Milk assassination
* Eight minutes of footage from the candlelight memorial
* Original theatrical trailer
* 30-page liner notes booklet featuring an essay by film critic B. Ruby Rich, a tribute by Milk's nephew Stuart Milk, and a meditation on the process of the film's restoration by UCLA's Ross Lipman
New Yorker Video released a stunning two disc DVD set back in 2004, and much of what you would find there is ported over here by Criterion. Minor things are missing, but so much is added that it hardly matters. Criterion has contributed all new featurettes that put the documentary in context with the feature film. Although some of the extras on that New Yorker set are indeed missing in action, it seems like adding more of Harvey Milk's contemporaries to the mix is a smarter move. Gone are some of the more salacious features that concentrated on Milk's assassin, and in their place are interviews with the Hollywood luminaries who seek to celebrate the legacy of the man before he died. I would say if you are a completist though, hang on to that first DVD edition because some of the extras are not ported over.
Key to this Blu-ray edition is a visual upgrade which makes the documentary look a lot more cinematic and rich in tone. Colors are far more vibrant, and the narrations and interview subjects are heard more easily than before. The film was never meant to be high definition, as it is mainly made up of vintage television clips and "shot on the fly" interviews. Yes, there are times when the film looks very rough. It is slapped together with old television news footage and 16mm reels, so it is never going to look like a traditional high definition project. Yet the restoration has given it an extra element of sheen that truly is a leap up from the 2004 DVD release, and so the new format is justified for once even for an older film. Rarely do I recommend an upgrade to Blu-ray unless I see a striking difference, and this is a tangible improvement. Certainly those with the DVD own a great product, but this does feel like a more robust package in technical terms.
The Times of Harvey Milk is an elegant piece of filmmaking that justifies the documentary genre with a fascinating story that has social relevance. There's no arguing this is a great movie that deserves the full-on Criterion treatment. Nothing was lacking with the 2004 DVD release, but this latest package updates everything to coincide with the world today. There are some missing elements such as the look at the killer Dan White that the DVD provided, but newly added interviews with contemporaries of Harvey Milk more than make up for any omissions. Also to great effect is a digital transfer to the new format which livens the picture and sound up to be a bit brighter and more accessible on modern TVs. Yet the story is all about history, and hopefully the cause Harvey Milk fought for is near to realization. You wonder if he ever had any inkling that he would become an iconic figure for the gay rights struggle, a civil rights pioneer to be mentioned with some of the greats of all time. One can't help but look at the Harvey pictured in this film and guess he would simply shrug and laugh good naturedly about the whole thing.
Guilty of carrying on the candle that 45,000 people started back when Milk passed away.
Review content copyright © 2011 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Interviews
* Rare Audio/Video