The Times of Harvey Milk Review
On the 27th of November 1978 the gay activist Harvey Milk and San Franciscan mayor George Moscone were assassinated by ex-district supervisor Dan White. Milk’s life and political career have just been dramatised by Gus Van Sant for the feature film Milk and one of the happy by-products of this is that Robert Epstein’s classic 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk is finally arriving onto DVD in the UK. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and a presence on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry of preserved titles, it remains a one of the key American non-fiction films of the 1980s.
On the surface, however, The Times of Harvey Milk may not seem like exceptional filmmaking. Its documentary techniques are fairly rudimentary and populist: talking heads, narrator, archive footage; in other words little that could be described as cinematic or indeed daring. Yet the decision makes sense on two counts. Firstly, this is a film about a subject and events that don’t require any ‘sexing up’, as it were. Milk was a quite extraordinary figure whose life took in the Navy and work as both stock analyst and Broadway producer before he settled in San Francisco and focussed his attentions on the political arena. Operating out of a camera store in Castro Street, the heart of the city’s gay community, it took Milk four years and a number of attempts to get into public office. In the meantime he became a much loved local figure, one who dubbed himself the ‘Mayor of Castro Street’ and gained friends and allies from attaching himself to neighbourhood and minority issues. His charisma no doubt helped, but so did his media nous. The Times of Harvey Milk doesn’t require dramatic re-enactments simply because Milk was in the public eye for much of this time. Again and again we are treated to local news reports and television appearances that gain a real sense of the man and his public image: campaigning about dog mess in San Franciscan parks; celebrating his election with a massive party outside the camera store; delivering tart one-liners on the steps of City Hall; pulling faces when he fluffs a line during an interview – it’s all there and ably utilised by Epstein in telling his story.
It’s this latter element – described early on by one of the interviewee’s as Milk’s “human factor” – which brings us to the second reason why The Times of Harvey Milk works so well in opting for standard documentary means. Essentially, Epstein is treating his film as he would a piece of fiction. Milk never becomes simply the subject but a living, breathing figure; in effect we get to know the person before the politics. The various assembled talking heads – a diverse blend of political aides, associates and locals, all of whom knew Milk exceptionally well – repeatedly draw us to the human side of the man, and then Epstein slowly introduces the events that would shape his political life and, ultimately, bring about his death. We’re effectively dealing with a narrative here and therefore all of the tensions and dramas that go with it, prompting a difficulty from my perspective in discussing too much of The Times of Harvey Milk’s screentime simply because it would provide too many spoilers. If you don’t know the story then it really does become an exceptionally gripping piece of work, akin to Kevin MacDonald’s documentary features One Day in September and Touching the Void, for example, albeit without recourse, as said, to the latter’s re-enactments.
The positioning of Milk and White within a clear protagonist-antagonist framework furthers this sense of straightforward narrative momentum. The Jewish homosexual versus the clean cut ex-fireman with small town values, both district supervisors but clearly worlds apart. As with Milk, White is similarly presented through a wealth of archive footage, though arguably we do get to know less of the man. He never gets that “human factor” which proves so key in getting Milk across to the viewer, but instead remains knowable only through the concrete facts: family man, ex-police officer and fireman, the perpetrator of two shockingly violent acts (Moscone and Milk were killed separately, each in their individual offices at opposite ends of City Hall and at point blank range). It’s a ploy that serves Epstein well inasmuch as the storytelling is provided with a clear villain. Yet it also points up The Times of Harvey Milk’s one flaw: namely that those who opposed Milk or differed in their viewpoints are given short shrift. Much like White, a figure such as Senator John Briggs (who spearheaded Proposition 6, a referendum to remove homosexual teachers from schools throughout San Francisco) is painted in broad strokes: another villain to add to the piece. This shouldn’t be taken as an apologia for White or Briggs, indeed most audiences will clearly identify on the side of Milk. But it does suggest that Epstein needed to back up this point and therefore opens him up to criticisms of one-sidedness.
Yet this remains the only misgiving about what is otherwise an excellent example of documentary filmmaking. The Times of Harvey Milk knows it has a great subject and fascinating events and is happy to simply let them play out. The resulting film is therefore as gripping as a piece of fiction and makes me wonder quite how Van Sant can improve on things with Milk. Additional biographical detail perhaps (Epstein removes any details of Milk’s personal relationships, with only a brief mention of his lover Scott Smith – played in the new film by James Franco and thus figuring far more prominently) and a potentially Oscar-winning performance from Sean Penn. But everything you need to know is already here and so if you’re wanting to know more about the man and the events of the latter part of his life then a purchase of this DVD could be potentially (I saw this having not yet seen the Van Sant movie) be more worthwhile than a trip to the cinema - especially when you look at some of the prices it's going for on the Price Devil link below...
ICA/Drake’s Avenue’s history of issuing films onto DVD has hardly been illustrious over the past few years (poor presentations, minimal extras), though clearly we must see The Times of Harvey Milk as a welcome exception. Utilising the UCLA restoration supervised by Epstein himself (and with a soundtrack remastered at the Skywalker Ranch, this time with assistance from composer Mark Isham), the print is excellent condition. Admittedly, it is at times hard to judge given the wealth of archive footage, much of it captured on videotape, though the talking heads footage is at the requisite clarity and contrast whilst the opening and closing credits (always a telltale sign when you’re unsure as to just how sharp a print is) look just as good as we should expect. The original 1.33:1 aspect ratio is maintained meaning that we needn’t worry about ICA’s habit of issuing titles without anamorphic enhancement, and the soundtrack (in its original stereo format) is excellent. Again the latter must take into account the quality of its archive footage, but the admittedly dated score comes across well as do Harvey Fierstein’s narration and the new interviews. All told, a presentation as good as we should have hoped for. The only misgiving is the lack of optional English subtitling.
Similarly impressive are the extras on display. Admittedly seeing a list of them may suggest that there’s more there than we actually get on the disc (the respective durations of the alternate ending, outtakes and Dan White update are all quite brief), but nonetheless each remains welcome. The alternate ending offers up some personal and arguably quite sentimental last words on Milk by a number of the talking heads. The outtakes amount to additional archive footage that Epstein couldn’t quite fit into his final cut. (Note that the un-restored picture and sound quality of both alternate ending and these outtakes is considerably less impressive than that of the main feature.) The Dan White update informs us of his suicide in 1985 following his release from prison in 1984. The original theatrical trailer is, of course, self-explanatory. And the footage from the 1985 Academy Awards is really quite fascinating. Presented by Kathleen Turner and showing the full acceptance speeches of Epstein and his producer Richard Schmiechen, what makes it especially notable is its showing of the films it was competing against. It’s easy to forget who gets the nod each year in any given category once the winner has been announced, especially in a category such as Best Documentary Feature. And The Times of Harvey Milk was up against some really stiff competition, amongst them Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Maximillian Schell’s wonderful Dietrich portrait, Marlene.