Judge Paul Corupe reviews a documentary detailing the life of slain politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk.
Our review of The Times Of Harvey Milk (Blu-Ray) Criterion Collection, published March 22nd, 2011, is also available.
"As president of the board of supervisors, it's my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed."—Dianne Feinstein
The Times of Harvey Milk is one of the landmark documentaries of the 1980s, a fascinating, award-winning film that chronicles San Francisco politician Harvey Milk's rise as the city's first openly gay elected official and his chilling end at the hands of a fellow city supervisor. Balancing a wealth of archival TV news footage and interviews, this heartfelt biography narrated by Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy) transcends all attempts to label it as simply a "gay" or even "political" documentary. It's just an exceptional film.
New Yorker Films has presented The Times of Harvey Milk as a deluxe two-disc special edition. Boasting over three hours of extras, this release does immeasurable justice to the film and is guaranteed to please those that want to preserve a bit of Harvey Milk's legacy on their DVD shelves.
Facts of the Case
From his beginning as a camera store owner in a well-known San Francisco gay neighborhood, Harvey Milk appointed himself the unofficial "Mayor of Castro Street" and soon entered the cutthroat world of legitimate politics. After several unsuccessful campaigns, a reorganization of the city's electoral zones finally gave Milk the boost he needed to become the first gay man to hold any substantial political office in the United States.
A strident crusader for the rights of gays, lesbians, and other minorities in his community, Milk remained a controversial and newsworthy figure during his time in office. The same cannot be said of Dan White, another city supervisor who was politically at odds with Milk and burdened by personal problems. When White impulsively quit city hall only to discover he was unable to withdraw his resignation later, the pressure proved too much. On November 27, 1978, White slipped into San Francisco's city hall through a basement window and shot Mayor George Moscone to death. He then reloaded and proceeded down a corridor where he murdered Harvey Milk. Escaping the electric chair, White was given a negligible seven-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter, causing an outcry on both Castro Street and all over San Francisco.
Completed five years after Milk's murder—the same year White was paroled and committed suicide—The Times of Harvey Milk is an appealing, sometimes moving film that has a riveting story to tell. Without exploiting his death or making a martyr of Milk, director Ron Epstein (The Celluloid Closet) has crafted a documentary that works not only as a biography and tribute to the slain city supervisor, but as a chronicle of the first time that gays and lesbians were represented in the political realm.
Although the film gives a broad survey of many of the issues that Milk fought for, including a pooper-scooper law, The Times of Harvey Milk is primarily about Milk's fight to solidify the gay rights movement. One of his most important achievements was to help pass a gay rights ordinance, which was supported by all the other city supervisors except for White. Milk also played a role in striking down the Briggs Initiative, a ballot measure that called for the dismissal of any teacher found to be "advocating, imposing, encouraging, or promoting" homosexual activity, even outside the classroom. One of the highlights of the film is a head-to-head debate between Milk and ambitious state legislator John Briggs, who seems completely flustered in trying to defend himself against Milk's accusations. The vague language used in the proposition earned it some powerful opponents, including Ronald Reagan and then-President Jimmy Carter. When it was eventually defeated, the triumph was seen as a major victory for gay rights.
The news footage, while essential in establishing the basic facts of Milk's tenure as a city supervisor, doesn't get very deep into his character. That's where the interviews come in, fleshing out Milk's charismatic personality and bringing him to life for the viewer. Campaign manager Anne Kronenberg and political consultant Tory Hartmann give a good portrait of Milk's optimistic early forays into the political ring. Henry Der, former executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, and gay schoolteacher Tom Ammiano testify of his commitment to help all minorities; and gay and lesbian activists Sally Gearheart and Bill Kraus espouse Milk's importance to the gay community. But the best moments come from the most unlikely of interview subjects. Before hearing of Milk, auto machinist Jim Elliot was ambivalent towards gays, and says he was surprised when his union announced they were backing, as he puts it, "a fruit." As the film progresses, Elliot tells of his realization that Milk's politics were very close to his own, and helped break down his own preconceptions. His eventual wholehearted support of Milk is a touching addition to an already engaging film.
The story that The Times of Harvey Milk captures needed to told and preserved, and this film depicts a particularly important moment for gay rights in North America as well as one of the strangest political assassinations that has ever occurred. Even for those who find they have no initial interest in these events, Ron Epstein's powerful documentary remains a must-see film.
Although the film has been "digitally restored and re-mastered" for its 20th anniversary, The Times of Harvey Milk is slightly lacking when it comes to picture quality. This is primarily because the recycled TV news is often distorted and fuzzy, major source defects that couldn't have been cleaned up for this release. The interviews recorded for the film aren't particularly vibrant, but an artifact-ridden outtake on the second disc reveals that significant restoration did take place, and this is as likely as good as this low-budget independent film will look. For an interview-driven documentary, the mono soundtrack is perfectly appropriate and dialogue is always clear.
New Yorker Films, not exactly known for loading their discs with special features, should be commended for the extra effort that has gone into this release. On the first disc is a commentary with Rob Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffman, and Daniel Nicoletta, a photographer whose work is featured in the film. Focusing almost exclusively on the filmmaking process, this track contains a generally interesting discussion on putting together a documentary on a limited budget. Pop in the second disc for a better look at Milk's legacy. Best of the batch is a 15-minute Q&A session with Rob Epstein and Tom Ammiano from the Director's Guild, Los Angeles, reflecting on the significance of the film. "Harvey Speaks Out" is billed as an outtakes featurette, but it's doubtful that many of these short TV clips were actually considered for inclusion—they just feature Milk talking about different city issues. A four minute "Dan White Update" picks up where the film left off, and is mainly included to acknowledge White's parole and suicide. Self-explanatory are "Academy Awards Presentation" from 1985 and "San Francisco Premiere: Castro Theatre," which features a few short speeches of interest. A less effective "alternate ending," a lengthy trailer, and a photo gallery are also included.
Perhaps the most important extras are those that specifically look back at the murder of Harvey Milk and talk about what it that means to us today. "1st Anniversary" is just a short speech by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, but the "25th Anniversary Events" comprises the major portion of the second disc. Kicking it off is "Dan White Case Revisited," a 45-minute round table on the Dan White case and its impact. Next up are tributes offered by George Moscone's son Chris Moscone and Harvey Milk's nephew Stuart Milk, followed by a speech by the man appointed to fill Milk's seat after his death, Harry Britt. It all ends with more speeches at a candlelight memorial at the Castro. There may be a few too many talking heads in these bonus features for some people, but overall, this is a nice little package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Twinkie defense" is a term that came into popular use after the murder trial. It is often mistakenly believed that White's lawyers claimed that their client's actions were motivated by his consumption of an unusually large amount of junk food. That's not quite true; the actual argument was that White was extremely depressed at the time of his murder, and that his out-of-character appetite for Twinkies and other sweets was simply evidence of his depression, not the cause. I'm not disputing a huge injustice was done at White's trial, but as a comprehensive documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk really should have set the record straight instead of repeating this misconception.
In Rob Epstein's interview at the Director's Guild, he explains that he intended this film to be a gay documentary that would reach to straight audiences. In this respect, Epstein has been completely successful, revealing Harvey Milk to be a passionate, charismatic politician who fought for what he believed in, and was cruelly murdered for his efforts. The Times of Harvey Milk is recommended for all viewers.
This film has proved just as effective at fighting against intolerance as Milk did as city supervisor. I wouldn't find The Times of Harvey Milk guilty for all the cupcakes, Ho-Hos, and Snoballs in the world.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Commentary by Rob Epstein, Deborah Hoffman, and Daniel Nicoletta
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.