The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for language, adult themes, and descriptions of violence
Running Time: 90 min.


Cast: Harvey Fierstein (narrator), Harvey Milk (archive footage)
Director: Rob Epstein
Screenplay (narration): Judith Coburn, Carter Wilson
Review published February 25, 2005

Quite frankly, The Times of Harvey Milk is one of the finest documentaries I've ever seen.  It tells the story of San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, a businessman who managed to secure a seat on the board of city supervisors, becoming the first openly homosexual elected official in the city's history, or in the country, really.  It also tells of Milk's death, along with San Francisco mayor Moscone, at the hands of a fellow city supervisor, Dan White. 

This documentary starts with the end of Milk's life, with Dianne Feinstein's pained announcement to the press that Milk and Moscone were shot and killed.  It's a curious thing to start with the film's big climax, but it turns out to be the best move documentary filmmaker  Rob Epstein (The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175) could make, as it makes everything that follows all the more resonant.  From then on, Epstein shows bit of interviews with several of Milk's peers, giving us some insight of the man behind the media image, showing his selflessness and interest in helping everyone he can, in his effort to promote unity and acceptance, not only for the gay community, but for everyone. 

Epstein also manages to secure a wealth of television footage, from interviews of Milk himself, to key newscasts which has relevance to Milk's life.  The interviews and footage are woven together perfectly, with a sequence of events that gives us a great feel for the man that Harvey Milk was, and what he meant to so many people.  great care is taken to show Milk in the most human light possible, and not as a martyr or person who could do no wrong.  It does concentrate on his strengths, however, which was mostly his ability to touch people's lives and gain their respect.

If there is any downside to this fantastic film, it's that it couldn't end on the heartfelt vigil held in Milk's honor shortly after his death, which provides perhaps the most emotionally poignant moment of the movie.  Unfortunately, the trial of Milk's killer, Dan White, was so bizarre that it had to follow after, which does erase some of the momentum and shift away from Milk's life.  Epstein does eventually tie it back together, though, by ending the film with the notion that Milk's sexuality might have played a role in his demise, which wasn't really that evident in the presentation here.  The film was released shortly before White would take his own life, the following year.

The Times of Harvey Milk is one of the best films of 1984, and deservedly would win the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature.  Beautifully packaged together. with much food for though and an emotional core, it has the ironic distinction of being both easy to watch as well as difficult, given the tragedy that would end Milk's life.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo