Robert Epstein’s landmark documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and Gus Van Sant’s narrative biopic Milk form an interesting diptych on the historical importance of gay political activist Harvey Milk. Both are social and political platforms educating a mass audience on the impact of Milk’s life and the tragedy of his death. Yet Epstein’s achievement is inherently more haunting because there’s no Sean Penn to personify Milk’s human complexities, no drama or comedy to offset the painful reality of his passing—just incomplete snapshots of Milk in news clips and his last will and testament captured on audio tape. Van Sant’s film necessarily and often engagingly celebrates Milk the person two decades after the fact, but Epstein’s film aches with his sudden absence, allowing the personal memories of friends and colleagues to illuminate the pain of a community at large. Immediacy and proximity defines The Times of Harvey Milk, and the fresh sting of tragedy rightfully lingers throughout each moment.
Narrated by the raspy-voiced thespian Harvey Fierstein, The Times of Harvey Milk documents the rise of the San Francisco gay community (centrally located in the famous Castro District), but also the way this cultural revolution filtered outward and affected the outlining Bay Area. While many of film’s subjects are gay, Epstein makes it a point to interview straight people who were affected by Milk’s warm personality and political muster.
A machinist named Jim Elliot, who once fully embraced stereotypes about gays, fondly remembers meeting Milk for the first time and having his preconceptions destroyed. His confessions prove that when Milk spoke, walls were broken down, and the surprise and elation on Elliot’s face reaffirms the palpable force of Milk’s presence on all groups of people. Dan Ammiano, a gay teacher at the center of Milk’s political fights against Proposition 6 in 1978, explains his own reasons for following Milk’s lead so closely. “I didn’t feel like an outsider with Harvey,” he says, indicating a consensus opinion many ethnicities and people of varying sexual orientations express in The Times of Harvey Milk. Epstein holds on many of their tender recollections, painting a fond collective eulogy for Milk one personal revelation at a time.
If The Times of Harvey Milk functions a dual role (both as a political timeline and personal memory bank), then Firestone’s adoring but matter of fact pitch precisely dissects Epstein’s ample amount of archival footage, bringing a sense of levity to both the small characterizations and watershed moments in Milk’s adult life. Lines like, “What was not on the resume was his homosexuality,” are delivered with such a casual beauty that it proves even the film’s prose seeks to erode the preconceived notions crippling the gay perspective.
From an educational standpoint, the talking-head interviews and voiceover narration pinpoint a critical crossroads between freedom of expression and religious fundamentalism. Yet personal emotions can’t help but dominate the proceedings. Like the citizens of San Francisco, segments of the country understood the gravity of the human rights Milk was defending and rightfully flocked to his defense. Late in The Times of Harvey Milk (a segment also utilized for dramatic effect in Van Sant’s film), Milk remembers a phone call he received from a young man simply telling him, “Thank you.” This moment shows that the struggle for gay rights wasn’t limited to the confines of San Francisco, but spread to the entire nation as a whole. Maybe it’s a foregone conclusion nowadays, but that subtext must have been downright revolutionary in the culturally strict, ideologically stringent confines of the Reagan era.
The assassination of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by estranged City Supervisor Dan White takes on a ghostly quality in The Times of Harvey Milk. Primarily communicated through the terse press conference held by Diane Feinstein, the news of the killings spreads into the streets of the Castro like wildfire, causing panic, rage, doubt, and finally strength and remembrance for many diverging groups. White’s overall calm, even meek demeanor makes for a chilling contrast to Milk’s warmth and compassion, and there’s a clear line drawn in the sand between this weak-willed cipher and a gallant public figure worth remembering.
All of these emotions percolate throughout Frances Reid’s crisp 16mm photography, capturing portions of San Francisco’s past infrastructure fraught with violence, gripped by mourning, and finally softened through celebration. These are textured portraits of people and places deeply influenced by Milk’s dynamism and dedication, and the film can be seen as a photo album for those who lived and suffered through the tumult. Most specifically, the resounding silence outside City Hall during the epic candle light vigil (proceeding the White Nights Riots) is one of those atmospheric moments of solace and sadness that no one can forget, especially Epstein’s eight interviewees.
The Times of Harvey Milk ends with the same inspirational prose Milk does: Milk’s words about hope echoing over the closing credits. But I can’t help but feel his more frank universal plead, “Every gay person must come out…you must tell your immediate family, you must tell your relatives, you must tell your friends if they are indeed your friends,” is an even more essential and ultimately political credo. The words don’t suggest a rosy, well-earned outcome for gay people, but a necessary and definitive human right that should not and cannot be denied to any one person. Harvey Milk stood for many things, most notably a patience for listening and a durability of purpose. Still, Epstein’s superb nonfiction film never forgets the unflinching, even rigorous internal force that drove Milk’s civility of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Before the pervasiveness of video, documentaries were often shot on 16mm, and the film stock immediately distinguishes itself as a textured, crisp look at a specific time period. The Times of Harvey Milk benefits from this grainy appearance, representing a special cultural awakening for the gay community but also a time capsule for the life and death of Harvey Milk himself. The excellent restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive wipes away the unwanted fragments of dirt and scratches to the negative. While the documentary is not overly stylized, the detailed imagery of San Francisco and the Castro district in particular convey a unique moment in the American zeitgeist through specific layers of color; greens, reds, blues, and yellows all have a dusty tint. The talking-head interviews are equally as crisp, and the various degrees of B-roll footage are concise. Only the archival bits from local news stations and affiliates contain a few unnecessary distortions, but that has nothing to do with this particular transfer. The sound design, especially the frequency of narrator Harvey Fierstein's voice, juxtaposes the often-transcendent imagery with a sense of recollection, admiration, and occasionally deep sadness. The Times of Harvey Milk looks and sounds as good as it ever will.
Filmmaker and professor Jon Else fervently discusses The Times of Harvey Milk in a lengthy interview illuminating the deceptive complexity of the film's three-act structure and the impact of coeditor Deborah Hoffman's effective expansion and contraction of temporality. Through his perceptive analysis, Else makes a convincing argument that Robert Epstein's film is one of the essential nonfiction films of all time. In a great featurette entitled "Two Films, One Legacy," interviews with key players from both Epstein's film and Gus Van Sant's Milk give their opinions on the overlap between nonfiction and fiction versions of the story. A great moment comes when Anne Kronenberg, Milk's campaign manager and key interview subject in The Times of Harvey Milk, discusses Epstein's inclusion of the female perspective as an essential contrasting perspective to the male point of view. Later in the short, Van Sant loquats on how he wanted to create a celebratory sculpture of these events, not a simple recreation. A mountain of deleted scenes, interviews, and archival footage on Dan White and other underexplored aspects of the Milk story deepen this particular fold in American history. The audio commentary, by Epstein, coeditor Deborah Hoffmann, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta, is endlessly informative, discussing corners of the Milk story that are underdeveloped in the actual documentary itself, like the role of Scott Smith in Milk's life during his life and after his death. Interestingly, Epstein fully admits that he was unable to convey the massive importance Mayor George Moscone had on the progressive atmosphere currently taking root in San Francisco.
"I’ve always considered myself part of a movement, part of a candidacy." Harvey Milk’s impact on the pulse of modern day politics still resonates today, and The Times of Harvey Milk reminds us why.