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Blu-Ray Review: ‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ Enhanced By Excellent Extras

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CHICAGO – Harvey Milk was the sort of grassroots political hero that would’ve never fit into our modern world of corporately controlled politics. He was a man of his word, and he had many of them. His fundamental belief in equal rights for all citizens provided the fuel for his tireless work ethic, intoxicating exuberance and extraordinary bravery.

In the opening moments of Rob Epstein’s profoundly moving 1984 documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk,” the titular San Francisco supervisor fearlessly rides atop a car waving to supporters, well aware that he’s an open target. The footage is juxtaposed with a taped will Milk recorded a year before his assassination in November 1978, when he was gunned down by a former colleague, Dan White (the city’s Mayor Moscone was also killed in the bloodbath). Considering Milk’s status as one of the first openly gay politicians elected to public office in America, his death may have easily been a hate crime.

HollywoodChicago.com Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0

Before serving his tragically brief yet remarkably productive eleven months in office, Milk rotated through an endless array of identities: antiwar protestor, Wall Street stock analyst, Broadway producer, member of the Navy. His life would be the ideal subject for a movie, but Epstein’s film is more interested in exploring the movement surrounding the man. The picture is not to be confused with Gus Van Sant’s riveting 2008 character portrait “Milk,” or Randy Shilts’s acclaimed 1982 book, “The Mayor of Castro Street,” which is subtitled, “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.” By focusing primarily on the “Times,” Epstein gradually uncovers illuminating truths about the beloved icon through priceless archival footage and revealing interviews with members of his staff. Anne Kronenberg recalls how Milk asked her to run his campaign when she was only 23, inviting her into his group of inexperienced yet impassioned supporters. Political consultant Tory Hartmann assists in painting an amusing and endearing portrait of Milk’s campaign headquarters set in a dingy camera store and populated by staff members who couldn’t blend into the mainstream if they tried. Auto machinist Jim Elliot is up front about his own bigotry, and describes how it faded away once he got to know Milk and realized that they agreed on many of the same issues.

Multitudes of Milk supporters display their enthusiasm in Rob Epstein’s exhilarating 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.
Multitudes of Milk supporters display their enthusiasm in Rob Epstein’s exhilarating 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

Epstein and co-editor Deborah Hoffmann devote the last third of the picture to the assassination and subsequent White Night Riots, while taking a matter-of-fact approach to exploring the twisted mind of White, and the even more twisted arguments of his defense attorneys. White clearly was a man as resistant to change and fueled by self-righteousness as John Wilkes Booth. His rigid moral upbringing severely clashed with the concept of an openly gay lifestyle. It’s downright chilling to observe how White’s wife, in the aftermath of the slayings, voiced her hope that “something good with come of this.” Twenty days prior to the tragedy, Milk scored a major victory by urging citizens to vote down the Briggs Initiative, which would have barred gay men and women from teaching in schools. This proposition inspired one of Milk’s most timeless lines, delivered during a debate where his opponent attempted to make voters fear that a homosexual teacher would somehow turn their own kids “gay.” If kids really did turn out like their teachers, Milk surmised, “there’d be lots of nuns running around today.”

The Times of Harvey Milk was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on March 29, 2011.
The Times of Harvey Milk was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on March 29, 2011.
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

“The Times of Harvey Milk” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio), and offers an overwhelming amount of special features, encouraging viewers to conduct their own research. The re-mastered audio commentary includes additional insights from Epstein, Hoffmann and photographer Daniel Nicoletta. They discuss the casting of Harvey Fierstein as the narrator, and recall how his dialogue was recorded in the closet of his Brooklyn apartment. Epstein labels himself as a “nonfiction narrative” filmmaker, rather than a documentarian, and he regrets that the film didn’t do Moscone historical justice, since the mayor broke ground in local government by including minorities in his board of supervisors. The film’s optional postscript includes a surprising confession from Elliot, who recounts how his daughter came out to him, and how he swiftly accepted her professed orientation. Additional camera operator Jon Else gives a superb breakdown of the film’s storytelling technique, while comparing the film to a hall of mirrors. It’s striking how the White Night Riots reflected the violence that preceded Milk’s rise to fame. Else notes that the film could’ve done a better job in depicting the open displays of gay eroticism that may have threatened people like White.
The most fascinating extras are the raw footage of speeches and scrapped interviews used by the filmmakers as research material. It’s a joy to hear Milk’s charisma during his 47-minute speech before the Texas Gay Conference Five in June 1978, as well as his fiery passion while celebrating the defeat of Prop 6. Rounding out the extended audio footage are one of three political will tapes recorded by Milk, as well as KFPA radio’s coverage of protestors chanting, “Out of the bars and into the street” in the aftermath of the Dade County Repeal. A highlight of the disc’s “draft interviews” (totaling 80 minutes) is Milk’s longtime boyfriend Scott Smith, portrayed in Van Sant’s film by James Franco, who provides heartfelt insight into Milk the person, while reminiscing about their years living together in San Francisco. Political analyst Cleve Jones gives an equally great interview, conveying the raw anger that still lingers from the Dan White verdict. He says that he warned police of a riot if White got off, and remembers the goosebumps he felt while watching the first police car go up in flames. In an infuriating 29-minute panel discussion from 2003, attorneys Douglas Schmidt and Stephen Scherr justify their defense of White, citing their client as a man of “moral fiber.”
It’s still tear-jerking to witness footage from the film’s emotional premiere at the Castro Theatre, and its subsequent victory at the Academy Awards. School teacher Tom Ammiano, Moscone’s daughter Rebecca and Milk’s successor Henry Britt each deliver speeches to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the assassinations. Film buffs will especially appreciate the 22-minute featurette “Two Films, One Legacy,” which juxtaposes documentary footage with scenes from Van Sant’s “Milk.” Conspicuously absent from the doc are the scripted drama’s two Oscar-winners: actor Sean Penn and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who was personally inspired by Epstein’s documentary. Nicoletta argues that without these films, Milk’s story could’ve easily been forgotten, registering as little more than a local tragedy. Yet the man’s fingerprints are indelibly etched throughout the town he once ruled, a fact proven by a series of still photos. How joyous a sight it would’ve been for Milk to see an elementary school named in his honor.

‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ is released by The Criterion Collection and features Harvey Milk, Anne Kronenberg, Tory Hartmann, Tom Ammiano, Jim Elliot, Henry Der, Jeannine Yeomans, Bill Kraus, Sally M. Gearhart and Harvey Fierstein. It was written and directed by Rob Epstein. It was released on March 29, 2011. It is not rated.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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