Few documentaries are more rooted in human emotion and progress than Robert Epstein's and Richard Schmiechen's story about the 'Times of Harvey Milk.' Clocking in at a brisk 88 minutes, this revealing and poignant doc seems to leave nothing out. It fully conveys the public feelings about Milk and his rise to political fame and the outcry over his untimely demise. It's a movie that raises specific and pointed questions about how we treat each other as a society. These are questions still being wrestled with today.
In case you don't know anything about Harvey Milk here's a quick rundown. He was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. This was during the '70s, when San Francisco saw a huge influx of gays and lesbians moving into the Castro District. Milk fought stringently for human rights, but made it clear that he was fighting for straight and gay alike. Even though Milk appeared to be an affable man who got along with most, there were many who didn't agree that he should be holding public office. One of his main dissenters was a man by the name of Dan White. Both Milk and White served as San Francisco district supervisors under the watchful eye of Mayor George Moscone.
That's about all you need to know. Even if you are too young to know how influential or important Milk's time in office was, this documentary succinctly spells it out. Culled from interviews and stock footage, with Harvey Fierstein narrating, the doc quickly starts rolling. It covers the boom of gay culture in San Francisco, the tribulations and outright hatred they faced, and how grateful they were for Milk's contributions to their cause.
Some documentaries tend to ramble or get off topic. With such a short running time 'The Times of Harvey Milk' has no time to waste. It stays focused throughout. We have two main subjects. The first is the upstart gay politician Harvey Milk. The second is a straight-laced family man who believes in old-school family values, Dan White.
The truly unsettling thing about the doc is, if you know anything about Milk's life you know what's coming. There's uneasiness to its message. It deftly constructs a timeline, building in historical suspense as it quickly chugs along.
This documentary is eye-opening in more ways than one. It has all the elements of a Hollywood-made politically-charged thriller, but this is real life. The feeling of dread is almost unbearable. Like whenever the Zapruder film is queued up. I know what's going to happen, but I find myself hoping that this time it might be different.
Even though this movie came out in 1984 the questions that it raises about basic human rights are still an issue today. These are controversial topics. Epstein and Schmiechen treat them with care. It's a balanced narrative, which tries to give us the best possible information.
Then that fateful day comes and the true weight of emotion that the movie has been building to is unleashed. It's perfectly paced as, when the assassination is discussed, you're fully invested in this historical tragedy. You're completely immersed in the issues being raised and you're actively thinking about what they mean to you today. This isn't just a watch it and forget it movie. It demands your attention and asks you honestly, "What do you think?"
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Criterion release. It comes in the standard clear Criterion keepcase. It comes with a 28-page booklet that includes a few essays: "Making History" by B. Ruby Rich, "Harvey's Enduring Legacy" by Stuart Milk, and "Restoring the Times of Harvey Milk" by Ross Lipman. The disc is a 50GB Blu-ray and it's coded for Region A play.
'The Times of Harvey Milk' is a product of its time period and is limited by the origin of its source material. This definitely isn't the clearest, most spectacular Criterion transfer you'll ever see. Although, considering the time period and the immense use of old stock footage, there isn't much more to expect.
The interviews with the different people who were close to Harvey Milk are the best looking scenes. These sequences feature as clear as possible video. Skin tones dance around a little though – from pale to overly tan. The stock footage varies in quality. The footage of Dan White being hustled out of the capitol building in handcuffs looks remarkably clear, while footage of parades and marches is less so.
Dark scenes, like the huge protest march toward the end, lacks much definition at all. Shadows have a crushing effect, but I expected as much. Noise is a frequent occurrence, but given the age of the movie I was impressed with the cleanliness of most of the footage. It's obvious that even though Criterion was dealing with less than stellar elements, they produced the best looking video transfer they could.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track has a modest output, but does its job with dignity. The interviews are delivered clearly. Some of the stock footage, with screaming crowds, gives itself over to static once and a while.
There are a few parades and such, with live music, which sounds relatively good considering the limitations. The narration is always intelligible. I didn't notice any egregious snapping or crackling on the mix. It says in the booklet notes that Criterion attended to crackling specifically. From what I heard it sounded like they did their job right.
Being a talk-heavy, two-channel mix, this isn't going to blow anyone away. Anyone going into this expecting an audio experience will be sorely mistaken. Instead Criterion has fashioned a mostly clean mix that clearly tells the story of Harvey Milk, and that's all you can really ask.
'The Times of Harvey Milk' is a quietly powerful documentary that focuses on many concerns and controversies that still reside in our society decades after the fact. There's no question that Milk progressed the cause of the gay community, but the movie shines a light on how much work still needs to be done. It's a movie about acceptance, love, and tolerance. Criterion has done a great job bearing in mind that the source wasn't pristine. This Criterion release is recommended to anyone, especially those who love thoughtful documentaries.