Doctober II #4 – The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

the_times_of_harvey_milk_posterThe Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Directed by: Rob Epstein
Written by: Rob Epstein, Carter Wilson, Judith Coburn
Starring: Harvey Milk, Harvey Fierstein (narration)

Harvey Milk was an American hero who broke down barriers and paved the way for change in US politics – the effects of which are still being felt to this day.  The Times of Harvey Milk chronicles the political career of the first openly gay supervisor in San Francisco.  From his humble beginnings in neighborhood politics and activism, to his final days with an office in San Francisco’s city hall, Rob Epstein’s film covers only the most important details of Milk’s incredible career. Milk’s open homosexuality at a time when such a thing was shamed in much of the Western world was cause for controversy, much of which is discussed in the film.  In the final act of the film, the assassination of Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone by supervisor Dan White is painfully detailed by director Rob Epstein, who gives his subjects all the respect in the world.

Actor Harvey Fierstein expertly narrates the documentary with his famous and unique gravelly-voice to great effect, never distracting from the incredible use of archival footage, nor overshadowing the talking head interviews with friends, family, and fellow politicians.  It’s perhaps my favorite example of narration in documentary, largely because I couldn’t imagine the film being nearly as effective without it.  While the film is absolutely a celebration of the life and accomplishments of Harvey Milk, it never loses sight of some of its bigger picture ideas – the opening up of American politics (and American people in general) to homosexuals, and the changing of the guard in the Western world.  We see what a confused and hateful America looked like before people like Harvey Milk and Sally Gearhart lobbied for change, and then talk to people whose lives were transformed by their actions and activism.  The effect is even greater in hindsight, comparing our tolerant and accepting society today to that of 1978, which was anything but.  It took the death of a courageous leader (and many more like him) to inspire thousands to take action and stand up for what they believe. The Times of Harvey Milk paints a powerful and comprehensive picture of a massive political movement, even though it only captures the fight in a single American city – it feels epic in scale despite its admittedly small scope.

Many of Milk’s triumphs were captured on film through amateur videographers and journalists, which director Rob Epstein expertly edits into a concise chronological look at his journey through city politics.  These moments are beautiful in their humanism, and makes the film’s tragic third act that much more unbearable.  We see touching and humorous interviews with Anne Kronenberg (Milk’s campaign manager), Tom Ammiano (LGBT activist), and Sally Gearhart (activist) among others, all of whom paint a vivid portrait of who Harvey Milk was, and how tragic the loss of his life was.  While we watch Milk’s meteoric rise, Epstein simultaneously covers the election and political career of Dan White, Harvey Milk’s eventual assassin.  The Times of Harvey Milk is incredibly well-crafted, giving the audience all of the information necessary to piece together the story without bloating or boring viewers.  This was recognized by critics and audiences worldwide in the form of an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1985, and a place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2012.  The life of Harvey Milk was given a big screen adaptation in 2008’s Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant, for which Sean Penn won Best Actor for portraying the titular activist and politician.
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What I Liked:

  • The talking head interviews are incredible, both the archival interviews and those captured specifically for the film.  They’re touching, funny, and revealing, with nobody afraid to talk about who Milk really is.  They embrace him for all his flaws, because at the end of the day he genuinely had good intentions.
  • The use of archival footage, especially in the film’s last act, is breathtaking.  We get a near real-time look at the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, which has become one of my all-time favorite movie moments.  Even though we all know what is coming after Dan White’s dismissal from the board of supervisors, we can’t help but hope that things turn out differently this time around.
  • Dan White is given the proper amount of time in the film, which I felt was very important seeing as he played a major part in the story of Harvey Milk.
  • The Times of Harvey Milk is as concise a documentary as I can imagine, which is an enormous feat when tackling the entire career of such an important figure.  It never overstays its welcome, which is rare for biographical films such as these.

The Times of Harvey Milk is one of the greatest biographical documentaries ever made, and I’m glad that it has been recognized as so over the years.  It’s at first glance a small scale look at the career of one brave politician and activist, but deep down it’s much more.  It’s a powerful look at a movement against hatred and bias that had tremendously far-reaching influence and importance on the lives of everyday Americans.  People like Harvey Milk made the world an infinitely better place, and Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk is a beautiful tribute to the man and the movement.  It’s relevant, important, revealing, and heartbreaking – which is everything a documentary should aspire to be.  The Oscar-winning Times of Harvey Milk gets my highest recommendation.

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