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With: Harvey Fierstein (narrator), Tom Ammiano, Anne Kronenberg, Tory Hartmann, Jim Elliot, Henry Der, Jeannine Yeomans, Bill Kraus, Sally M. Gearhart, Harvey Milk
Written by: Judith Coburn, Carter Wilson
Directed by: Rob Epstein, Richard Schmiechen
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 90
Date: 10/07/1984

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Got Milk?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This ragged, powerful documentary captures the beloved spirit and energy of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk who was shot down and killed in 1978 -- along with mayor George Moscone -- by fellow supervisor Dan White. Astonishingly, thanks to the infamous "Twinkie Defense" -- in which he blamed his depression on too much junk food -- White was only convicted of manslaughter and served just five and a half years in prison.

Though the film will probably mean more to San Francisco residents like myself, and to gay people everywhere, it's more than that. It's a classic document about hatred and bravery that is still essential today -- if not more so. However, thanks to the success of Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk (2008), perhaps more people will turn to this earlier film for more details.

Directed by Rob Epstein and narrated by Harvey Fierstein, The Times of Harvey Milk uses still photos, scratchy recordings and shabby old footage to piece together the story of an outgoing, lovable man who came to San Francisco, opened a camera shop and declared himself the Mayor of Castro Street. When San Francisco was re-districted, Milk found himself the prime candidate for the up-and-coming neighborhood's new supervisor. Among the film's interviewees is a young Tom Ammiano, identified as a schoolteacher, who -- no doubt inspired by Milk -- went on to become one of San Francisco's 2000 mayoral candidates.

Though Epstein employs the now-standard talking head/stock footage/narrator formula, The Times of Harvey Milk rings with passion, opening with the terrifying news footage of acting mayor Dianne Feinstein with a shocked, blank expression announcing the crime. Like the man himself, the film is lively but fiercely devoted; it pulses with life. The film isn't afraid to record images and language that would be cut out today. At the same time, it's shocking to see that the resentment and hatred toward gay people was so much harsher just 20 years ago.

Five years ago, New Yorker released an essential two-disc set for the film's 20th anniversary, and now the Criterion Collection trumps that with even more spectacular 25th anniversary DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Besides a digital cleanup, the film now comes with a commentary track by Epstein, editor Deborah Hoffman and still photographer Daniel Nicoletta. Bonuses include a new featurette including cast and crew from Van Sant's film, footage of the world premiere at San Francisco's famed Castro Theater, the Academy Award presentation during which the film won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and much more. Film critic B. Ruby Rich provides the liner notes.

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