The Times of Harvey Milk

Director: Rob Epstein
Screenplay: Rob Epstein and Carter Wilson (narration by Judith Coburn and Carter Wilson)
Features: Harvey Fierstein (Narrator), Harvey Milk, Anne Kronenberg, Tory Hartmann, Tom Ammiano, Jim Elliot, Henry Der, Jeannine Yeomans, Bill Kraus, Sally M. Gearhart
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1984
Country: U.S.
The Times of Harvey Milk Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Times of Harvey MilkThe Times of Harvey Milk begins in a moment of grief and shock: The very first images we see are from news cameras recording in almost uncomfortable close-up the face of Dianne Fienstein, then-president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, announcing that city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in U.S. history, and Mayor George Moscone had been shot and killed that morning and that the suspect was another city supervisor named Dan White. Director Robert Epstein freezes on Fienstein’s face after she has made this announcement, allowing the impact to sink in--again, as it were, since virtually no one who sees the film will be unaware of its subject’s untimely assassination in San Francisco’s City Hall in 1978. The effectiveness of this opening sequence--so bold, so blunt, so honest in avoiding any false sense of suspense--is mirrored in the rest of the film, which is a finely structured and deeply moving portrait of not just a man, but, as the title suggests, the times in which he lived and how he affected, and was affected by, them.

Epstein, who got his start at age 19 working for gay activist documentarian Peter Adair’s Mariposa Film Group, had been working on a short documentary about Milk and his work against Proposition 6, which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools, when Milk was killed. Thus, he was already familiar with the world of both San Francisco politics and Milk’s circle of friends and supporters, which gives The Times of Harvey Milk the sense of having been made from the inside. By the time Epstein and his producer Richard Schmiechen were conducting interviews for the film, enough time had passed since Milk’s death that the interviewees could reflect on it as history without being so distant from it that the pain didn’t still register in their eyes. Although he conducted dozens of interviews in preparation for the film, Epstein only included eight carefully selected interviewees to appear on screen, each of whom offers a unique vantage point on Milk as a politician, as a gay activist, and as a human being. So, for example, from Anne Kronenberg, who worked as an aide in City Hall, we get a sense of what Milk was like as a dedicated professional, committed to his causes and ever so savvy in his understanding of his constituents. From Tom Ammiano, a schoolteacher who would have lost his job had Proposition 6 passed, we see in individual form how Milk’s activism touched lives. And from Jim Elliot, an auto mechanic and union leader who is perhaps the most unexpected interview subject, we are given insight into how Milk was viewed by those who would not normally ally themselves with a gay activist.

However, The Times of Harvey Milk is composed of more than just personal reminiscences. One of its great powers as a document of its times is its fluid, dexterous inclusion of archival footage that weaves a concise, but thorough portrait of San Francisco in the tumultuous 1970s and the emergence of an increasingly organized gay rights movement. Perhaps to make the film more accessible to conservative viewers (remember that the film was released in 1984, the year of Ronald Reagan’s re-election and just before the AIDS crisis became fully public), Epstein and his coeditor Deborah Hoffmann soften the edges of the city’s homosexual subculture, leaving out some of the more explicit moments that took place during various gay pride parades that signaled the movement’s increasing strength and made straight people so nervous. Yet, the film never feels dishonest in its depiction of that time and place and Harvey Milk’s role in it, which evolved over the decade from local business owner in the famed Castro District, to activist and aspiring local politician, to history-making trail-blazer who stayed true to his core beliefs until the very end (perhaps sensing how dangerous his particular form of history making was, Milk recorded a last will and testament to be read if he were assassinated, a significant portion of which we hear on the soundtrack).

The final third of The Times of Harvey Milk follows the events in the wake of his murder, including the arrest and trial of his killer, Dan White, a seemingly normal former fire fighter. Epstein declines to psychoanalyze White or speculate on his motives, allowing various news clips to sketch out the broad parameters of what was obviously a tormented psyche. Just as we heard much of Milk’s last will and testament, we hear a sizable portion of White’s audio-recorded confession. This confession was instrumental in convincing the jury that his actions were not premeditated, which resulted in his being convicting of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. He served seven years in prison before being paroled, and the outrage of those who knew and loved Milk is palpable, especially since the film was completed just after he was released (White committed suicide a year later). Epstein treats White with a surprising level of fairness, especially given the fact that the film as a whole, if it has a fault, is perhaps a bit too hagiographic. This may be because all of the interviewees were professional associates of Milk’s, so we don’t hear from those who were personally closest to him (like his long-time partner Scott Smith, who was nevertheless instrumental in helping Epstein research and work on the film). The result is an historical documentary that does exactly what its title promises, but also more: In showing us the times of Harvey Milk, it reminds us that cultural battles are not easily won and that any sense of progress, however small, is worth celebrating.

The Times of Harvey Milk Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Times of Harvey Milk is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
  • Audio commentary featuring director Robert Epstein, coeditor Deborah Hoffmann, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta
  • Interview clips not used in the film
  • Video interview with documentary filmmaker Jon Else
  • “Celebrating Harvey Milk: Two Films, One Legacy” featurette
  • Rare collection of audio and video recordings of Milk
  • Excerpts from Epstein’s research tapes, featuring Milk partner Scott Smith
  • Footage from the film’s Castro Theatre premiere and the 1984 Academy Awards
  • Panel discussion on Supervisor Dan White’s trial
  • Excerpts from the 25th anniversary commemoration of Milk’s and Mayor George Moscone’s assassinations
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic B. Ruby Rich, a tribute by Milk’s nephew Stuart Milk, and a piece on the film’s restoration by UCLA’s Ross Lipman
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMarch 22, 2011

    Criterions’ new digital transfer of The Times of Harvey Milk, which was supervised and approved by director Robert Epstein, was made from the UCLA Film and Television Archive restoration, which was completed just over a year ago (the liner notes include an extensive discussion of the restoration efforts by Ross Lipman, a senior film restorationist). The 2K transfer itself was taken from UCLA’s restored 35mm duplicate negative, which was created from the original 16mm color negative AB rolls, 16mm reversal preproduction elements, and the original 1-inch video production master. Of course, the resulting look of the film is quite uneven because it is composed of so many disparate elements, from the interviews, which were shot on 16mm, to the various archival clips, which come from a wide variety of media, both filmic and magnetic. Suffice it to say that the film looks exactly as it should, with the new footage clean and dirt-free while the various shades of archival footage reflect their time and place. It is a strong improvement over New Yorker’s 2004 DVD release. The lossles DTS-HD Master Audio two-channel surround soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from UCLA’s restored magnetic tracks, which were created from the original 35mm six-track master sound mix and original PCM-F1 stereo music master. Mark Isham’s music, which is so crucially haunting at various points in the film, sounds beautiful, and all of the interviews sound natural and clean.
    Criterion has put together an impressive array of supplements to contextualize this important documentary, some of which have been drawn from the 2004 New Yorker DVD. From that release we get an audio commentary by director Robert Epstein, coeditor Deborah Hoffmann, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta that is definitely worth listening to. Brand-new is a 19-minute video interview with documentary filmmaker Jon Else about the film’s structure and impact and a new 23-minute video program titled “Celebrating Harvey Milk: Two Films, One Legacy” that looks at both The Times of Harvey Milk and Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), featuring interviews with Epstein, Van Sant, actor James Franco, and Milk friends Cleve Jones, Anne Kronenberg, and Daniel Nicoletta. Criterion has also dug deep into the archives and included a 3-minute “Postscript” that features additional interview bits from Tory Hartman, Kill Kraus, Anne Kronenberg, and Jim Elliot that was ultimately cut from the film; a collection of rare audio and video recordings of Milk; some 80 minutes of excerpts from Epstein’s research tapes, some of which feature Milk partner Scott Smith; video footage from the film’s Castro Theatre premiere and footage of Epstein and Schmiechen accepting their Oscars during the 1984 Academy Awards telecast; a collection of news clips about Dan White and a panel discussion on his trial with attorneys Douglas Schmidt and Stephen Scherr and deputy district attorney Jim Hammer; and footage from the 25th anniversary commemoration of Milk’s and Mayor George Moscone’s assassinations in 2003. The insert booklet contains an essay by film critic B. Ruby Rich, a tribute by Milk’s nephew Stuart Milk, and an essay about the film’s restoration by UCLA restorationist Ross Lipman.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

    © 1998 - 2023 - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.