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  Times of Harvey Milk, The American Anthem
Year: 1984
Director: Rob Epstein
Stars: Harvey Milk, Harvey Fierstein, various
Genre: DocumentaryBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Harvey Milk was born in 1930 and was raised in unremarkable surroundings though he would go on to be a remarkable man. He knew he was gay in his early teens, but moved to San Francisco which many young gay men and women did as there was a community there they could flourish in, often being rejected by their families and former friends. To Milk, this rejection was unacceptable, and he decided to start a political campaign to be elected to office in the city with a broader remit of making the world a lot more tolerant. After three tries, he became a supervisor on the city's council and gained higher profile - but that's not why he made headline news.

Well, it was, he won plenty of publicity for his progressive views when he was alive, but it was his sudden death in 1978 at age forty-eight that he is remembered as more than the first openly gay man elected to public office in the world. The seventies were a time of great cultural upheaval as minorities in the West began to make themselves heard, and social equality became hugely important, but not everyone embraced those pioneering ways, and one of those people who were dead against them, as far as we can tell, was Dan White, a fellow supervisor of Milk's who was responsible for his murder and that of the Mayor.

The reasons for this seem to be a lot more complex than this documentary had space to relate, as White was not a simple-minded bigot, though it is significant that the first thing he thought of doing after shooting Mayor George Moscone was to go and kill Harvey, strongly suggesting he blamed them both for his change in fortunes, therefore bigotry was a definite inspiration for his crimes. But director Rob Epstein was not about to make his Milk documentary wrapped up in his murderer, and the story of the subsequent trial was left for the last third of the film rather than introduced at the beginning which would have made it the focus, perhaps foiling true crime enthusiasts.

After all, we needed to be aware of why Milk was so influential, even beyond anything he could have dreamed of, though there was a time when his story was in danger of being forgotten in the gay history thanks to the spectre of AIDS which bulldozed everything before it in the experiences of homosexuality and the mainstream reaction to it. Therefore while Epstein did not do anything groundbreaking in his technique, lest of all flashy, the fact he made the documentary was the best thing he could have done because it not only spoke for itself, but allowed Milk to speak for himself, if anything you are hungry to hear more from him as he was an excellent, lucid speaker and advocate. Just watch him debate would-be anti-gay legislators on television and the manner in which he exposes their ludicrous arguments is a wonder to behold.

But it was the murders that ensured we would still be discussing Milk decades later, that and the 2008 film based on his life which was able to delve into his private life more, something Epstein either did not have the footage for, or was reluctant to do. If anything, Sean Penn's Oscar-winning performance was more camp than the actual subject, as Harvey was no swishy stereotype, but Gus Van Sant's generally very fine biopic led more audiences back to this film, and for that reason, among others, it was valuable. The main flaw here was that it was such a fascinating story, you wanted to know more than it was able to tell, and there was a sense of threads that could have been followed that were not, but on the plus side Epstein chose his interviewees superbly, each make a vital contribution, and that builds up a picture of an excellent politician, something that seems almost alien to contemplate in the twenty-first century. But really, this could have lasted another half hour and nobody would have complained. Music by Mark Isham.

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray full of features:

Director-approved digital transfer, from the UCLA Film and Television Archive restoration, with DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary featuring director Robert Epstein, coeditor Deborah Hoffmann, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta
Interview clips not used in the film
New interview with documentary filmmaker Jon Else
New program about The Times of Harvey Milk and Gus Van Sant's Milk, featuring Epstein, Van Sant, actor James Franco, and Milk friends Cleve Jones, Anne Kronenberg, and Nicoletta
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 twenty-fifth anniversary commemoration of Milk’s and Mayor George Moscone's assassinations
Original theatrical trailer
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: A booklet featuring a new 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.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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