The Times Of Harvey Milk

The Times Of Harvey Milk


Reviewed by: Richard Mellor

Following hot on the well-regarded heels of Gus Van Sant's feature film Milk comes this DVD release of a 1984 documentary on the San Francisco activist-cum-Supervisor. The Times Of Harvey Milk is even playing Berlin Film Festival this very week. It's clearly milking the success of GVS's Oscar-nominated drama about Milk, while both Milk pictures could be accused of milking the Obama-mania currently gripping the world. You know the sort of thing: pionering-politician-overcomes-prejudice-and-makes-anything-possible.

The two Milk movies essentially tell the same story: Milk spends more minutes focusing on its idol's campaigns and triumphs, while The Times Of Harvey Milk devotes slightly greater screen time to Harvey's assassination and legacy. The difference comes in the tone. As you might expect from a 'drama', Milk is full of theatrics, climaxes and changes of pace. Yet, while The Times of Harvey Milk consciously lacks these things in favour of a matter-of-fact delivery, it has no less panache or style.

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Rob Epstein's documentary is so classically 1970s America it makes you want to find a suede vest, comb your hair in a silly side parting or protracted perm and dance terribly to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The colour is that starchy technicolour instantly familiar from films of the age like Bullitt, and narrator Harvey Fierstein speaks like a character from Magnum PI, his purring voice deadpan and oh so low. Much of the footage comes from San Francisco's Channel 5: Eyewitness News, reporters proudly orating the name at the end of their stories, with series of photos filling in the gaps.

Watching Epstein outline the key moments in Harvey Milk's life ought to be a compulsory task - or rather pleasure - for modern documentarians. Unlike Michael Moore polemics or Alex Gibney's recent Gonzo, The Times Of Harvey Milk noticeably has no special effects or wacky stylistics; instead it makes do with half a dozen interviewees, mostly friends of Milk, plus the redoubtable Fierstein, for a faithful, chronological telling of the facts. The interviewees are great value, telling rambling anecdotes, and laughing and weeping as they recall the friend they so admired.

Gently cementing the goodness of its eponymous hero, The Times Of Harvey Milk climaxes with its portrayal of the events following Milk and Mayor George Moscone's dual assassination by political rival Dan White. The huge candlelit vigil immediately afterwards is shown in awed silence; several of Milk's surviving friends break down when recalling the procession, and their later, persisting, anger at the pathetically short sentence White received from a sympathetic establishment jury. These are touching scenes, not overcooked but deliciously tender.

Homosexual prejudice exists to this day, but Harvey Milk undoubtedly made huge strides for the community he came to embody. And his impact is seen on this documentary itself: unionist Jim Elliot admits to considering Milk a silly "fruit" when he first encountered the campaigner, but having his opinion turned on its head by the man he came to know. It's a thriling, inspiring nano-example of Milk's achievements, and more than enough justification for all this milking.

Reviewed on: 04 Feb 2009
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Documentary about the gay rights activist gets a timely DVD release.
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Director: Rob Epstein

Writer: Judith Coburn, Rob Epstein, Carter Wilson

Starring: Harvey Milk, Harvey Fierstein, Anne Kronenberg, Tory Hartmann, Tom Ammiano, Jim Elliot, Henry Der, Jeannine Yeomans, Bill Kraus, Sally M. Gearhart

Year: 1984

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


BIFF 2009

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