While most documentary films embrace a view that examines a person more or less from a biographical point of view, Robert Epstein and Richard Schiechen's documentary about the first openly gay elected official in the United States takes a somewhat different approach. The subject of the film, Harvey Milk, was elected to the San Francisco board of city supervisors in 1977, and proceeded to champion for the rights not only of homosexuals, but of underprivileged people in general, gaining popularity by appealing to minorities and working class folks. The story of Milk is one that demonstrates the power of the U.S. election system, one that serves the interest of the public when utilized to its ...view middle of the document...
If there's one problem that this film has, it's that it definitely is swayed towards the homosexual audience. The film stresses Milk's role as a gay rights crusader, which certainly was part of his appeal and a primary reason he was elected, but equally certainly not the entire ingredient explaining his success as an elected official. That this film is geared more towards gay audiences will definitely dissuade some viewers, but ultimately, I believe the fascinating story this film documents makes up for any qualms a viewer may have if one approaches the film with an open mind.
Milk's biography is really skimmed over, and occupies precious little screen time. For a viewer interested in the man rather than the time in which he lived, I would suggest reading biographical information rather than rely solely on this film. The Times of Harvey Milk does briefly discuss Milk's early life and his introduction into the political world, but it really focuses on other aspects of the man and his story, dealing mostly with Milk's role as a city supervisor and the way in which he affected the time and place that he served in. While this element of the film is fascinating and still resonant today with the ongoing discussion of gay rights, the biographical element is more or less ignored along the way.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Harvey Milk's life was its tragic end. In 1978, Milk and the Mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, were brutally assassinated by a former city supervisor, Dan White. White had previously resigned and subsequently had attempted to rescind his resignation. When it became clear that he would not be reappointed, White shot and killed Milk and Moscone, whom he believed were instrumental in the decision. The film spends a good deal of time examining the crime, the trial that followed, and the public reaction to the rather light verdict.
The murder case presented in the film seems to have been lifted straight from a novel; it's so outlandish that one can't help but be mesmerized by the bizarre true circumstances surrounding Milk's assassination. While the entirety of this film is interesting and does a fine job relaying its story, it is the situation surrounding Milk's death that really hooks its audience and makes the film resonate with the viewer even more.
For their part, Epstein and Schiechen do a fantastic job of assembling footage for use in The Times of Harvey Milk. The extensive archival footage is splendidly edited and utilized, really driving the film along. Complementing the footage is a series of heartfelt interviews with Milk's friends, associates, and acquaintances that really hammer home just how much this guy meant to the people he represented while in office. The interviews assembled here are pretty remarkable; very candid and telling, these eyewitness accounts end up providing a much more complete view of Milk's legacy than the usual disjointed talking heads would be able to.