Tuesday, March 22, 2011

New on Blu: "The Times of Harvey Milk"

The key to understanding The Times of Harvey Milk is right there in the title: Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s documentary isn’t just about Milk, the first openly gay male politician in California. It is about his times—the world he was a part of, the world he left behind, and now, more than a quarter century after its release, the world that this acclaimed documentary about him was released into. It is more than a profile. It is a time capsule.

The film begins with a now-famous piece of footage: Diane Feinstein (then President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors) announcing to news cameras that her fellow City Supervisor Milk and Mayor George Moscone had been shot and killed, and that former Supervisor Dan White was the primary suspect. The response of the assembled horde is still stirring in its sheer emotion—there are audible gasps, and one unidentified man shouts, “JESUS CHRIST!” It was a shocking act; the reaction is understandable.

From there the narrative spins back, to trace Milk’s life. Though the film is fairly conventional from a stylistic point of view—talking heads, biographical photos, narration (by Harvey Fierstein) and copious archival footage—the structure is somewhat unexpected. Precious little time is spent on his childhood and formative years (he’s elected by the 17-minute mark), and his assassination comes 53 minutes into the 88-minute film. The net result is twofold: the filmmakers are able to adopt a traditional three-act structure, and are able to focus the bulk of the running time on his 11 months as a city supervisor.

In keying in on that particular element—not his tortured childhood, not his private life, but his public service—director Epstein is able to put across, often more successfully than the later docudrama Milk did, the dyed-in-the-wool populism of his politics. He wasn’t just about gay rights; he was for the underdog. Of course, the underdog was often the gay citizen; as in Milk, much time is spent on his efforts to fight Prop 6 (aka “the Briggs initiative”), which banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools (and could even allow firing teachers who supported gay rights). Some of the best archival footage comes in this section, with Milk and activist Sally Gearhart taking on Briggs in a TV debate (and just destroying him), as well as Milk going at Briggs at a public debate and fileting the notion of homosexual or heterosexual “influence.”

Epstein (and co-editor Deborah Hoffman) masterfully intercut Milk’s political triumphs with the parallel rise and fall of Supervisor White, who was elected at the same time as Milk but quickly found himself frustrated by the Board. His strange resignation (and attempt to retract it) is covered in close detail, but the filmmakers step back from the assassination day itself, which is brilliantly conveyed with nothing other than frantic news footage and half-heard CB radio recordings.

The third act, then, deals with the aftermath of his death—the candlelight march, the farcical trail of Dan White (and the notorious “Twinkie defense”), and the subsequent outrage over his grotesquely inadequate punishment. Convicted on two counts of voluntary manslaughter, he served five and a half years thanks to what amounted to a temporary insanity defense, though he received no psychiatric treatment at any point in that sentence. Maybe he’d have been dealt with more harshly if he’d only killed the mayor, someone suggests. Stranger things have happened in the American legal system.

The Times of Harvey Milk is a visceral, emotional film: it taps the viewer right into its events, from the joy of the Gay Pride movement (the footage of the ‘70s-era Castro is vibrant and exciting) to the hope of his time in office to the sadness and then anger that followed his death. Those shots of the streets of San Francisco filled with candlelight marchers on the night of his death still give the viewer goose bumps; the fury of the “White Night Riots” is palpable and more than a little scary. The power of this film lies in those moments, in the bravado with which the filmmakers bring them to life, and make us a part of them. Those were the times of Harvey Milk, and yet, we are still living in his time.

"The Times of Harvey Milk" debuts on Blu-ray today from the Criterion Collection. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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