The Times of Harvey Milk
Directed by Robert Epstein
United States, 1984
Criterion’s relationship with non-fiction filmmaking is an interesting one. They’ve certainly given some classic documentaries the releases they deserve (Salesman, Gimme Shelter, Harlan County USA, For All Mankind, etc.) but I really wish they’d open their minds a bit and stray from their more conservative line up. Having said that, it was definitely a surprise to see Rob Epstein’s Academy Award winner The Times of Harvey Milk on their list of upcoming releases–certainly a refreshing choice but also a reminder that they’ve barely tapped the surface of a reservoir of amazing non-fiction films that are floating around in sub-standard DVD limbo. Hopefully this release is a sign of things to come.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Harvey Milk, I’ll kindly lay out the details for you: Harvey Milk was the first gay man to be elected to public office in California. He was influential within the gay community and was known for his fight to keep the government out of the private sex lives of citizens. Apparently, he’s also fondly remembered for his stance against dog poop in public parks. There’s actually a great scene in the film where Milk meets the press in a park and steps in a pre-planted piece of doggy doo. He was definitely an underdog in his circle of politicians but managed to gain the respect and support of his peers, including the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone. One man who didn’t support Milk’s overtly liberal politics was Dan White, member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and an overall clean cut, conservative American. He frequently clashed with Milk — and other members on the board — on various issues and eventually resigned from his position as a seat supervisor. It wasn’t long before he changed his mind and wanted his job back but Mayor Moscone refused to accept his offer to return to his position, causing White to sneak into city hall — through the window no less — and gun down the Mayor in cold blood. He then reloaded his weapon and walked over to Harvey Milk’s office and shot him point blank, killing him.
At this point the film focuses on the trial of Dan White in the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. It’s here we learn of the infamous “Twinkie Defense”, in which White’s defence team claimed that his out-of-character over consumption of junk food was a characteristic of a man who was severely depressed. They insisted his mental state was not compatible with one of a motivated killer. The fact that he carried a gun into the office, along with a pocketful of bullets, was explained simply as a form of routine; White was an ex-cop and a police officer friend of his explains this as a normal thing for cops to do. He was strategically painted as a man who was suffering from severe stress, simply trying to do what’s best for his community and support his family. The jury members were forced to tears when they heard White’s audio confession, sympathizing with what they thought was a well-rounded, conservative American boy who’d lost his way. Ultimately, they decided in his favour and found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of first degree murder. The result sent shockwaves through the community and sparked the “White Night Riots”. Police clashed with angry citizens in a response similar to the 1992 Rodney King case and its resulting LA riots. Once the dust settled, thousands of people gathered for a candlelight vigil in honour of both Milk and Moscone.
Director Robert Epstein approaches this material in a fairly conventional manner but he still manages to create an inspiring and thrilling tale, even if you know how everything ends. This film is truly the definitive telling of Harvey Milk’s story. Epstein utilizes a traditional narrator in the film but subverts expectations by hiring the raspy voiced Harvey Fierstein to handle the vocal duties. Definitely a courageous choice and certainly appropriate considering the subject matter. Even with narration, the film never really gets too didactic, maintaining a heavy stream of information in a consistently engaging fashion. Talking head interviews are spread throughout along with a wide variety of stock footage and still photography. Although the story is told in a retrospective fashion, it still feels very in-the-moment. Those aware of the tragic ending will find themselves hoping that somehow Milk’s story might end differently. I felt this same way when watching Paul Greengrass’s ‘United 93′, letting the power of the storytelling convince me that the film will somehow change history and end on a positive note. While Gus Van Sant’s Milk was a great dramatic take on this story, I think The Times of Harvey Milk truly captures the sorrow felt by the community with the loss of such a charismatic and important political figure and the resulting frustration with the legal system and their incompetent handling of Dan White’s trial.
Quality wise, The Times of Harvey Milk looks pretty great on blu ray. The film was originally shot on 16mm film and the transfer retains the quality and intent of the filmmaker. There’s also a great deal of stock footage from varying sources that holds up fairly well throughout the film. Having said that, The Times of Harvey Milk isn’t really known for its striking cinematography. Outside of the news footage and stills, the film is made up mostly of talking heads. Still, it’s always refreshing to watch a documentary that’s actually shot on film. As for the bonus features, you get an audio commentary from direct Robert Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffmann, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta, deleted interview clips, a new documentary on the film featuring interviews with Gus Van Sant and James Franco, and a rare collection of audio and video recordings of Milk, among other features. This is exactly why I wish Criterion would handle more docs. If there were a brand of filmmaking that benefits the most from bonus features, it’s documentaries! Get on it, Criterion!! — Jay C.