As its title indicates, The Times of Harvey Milk is not about a man, but about a world. It is a world before I was born, certainly before I was politically conscious. It is a world where the political realities of today seem quaint. Certainly, even in this moment when people vote away the rights of gay people to be married, it is hard for me to imagine a news reporter - anywhere, let alone in San Francisco - asking a man who happened to be gay if he understood why straight people would be afraid he wouldn't represent them in his elected office. It is equally hard for me to fully understand just how important Harvey Milk was to the gay community, particularly in San Francisco in the late 1970s. Fortunately, we have The Times of Harvey Milk to give us the best idea of just what this was like.
Created out of happenstance, the film took shape after Milk's assassination while Epstein was shooting a very different documentary that focused on Milk's work to defeat proposition 6, one of a long list of horrible and embarrassing propositions in California (some of which - prop. 13, prop. 187, prop. 209, prop. 22 - didn't have the good fortune to be defeated). What Epstein stumbled into was nothing less than an invaluable insight into one of the great American stories of freedom deferred. Through careful selection and narrative skill - much of which is so effortlessly carried out as to be invisible - Epstein quickly establishes the climate of San Francisco and America in order to establish the importance of Milk's rise. Just as surely, he shifts into the aftermath of his death in order to play out the impact of his life and the need for meaning in his wake. The film never lingers on Milk himself, and yet we feel we know him more than we do because we care more than we ever thought we could.
I enjoyed Gus Van Sant's Milk. I thought it suffered from a tendency towards Hollywood tropes that seemed forced into the narrative by the inevitable difficulty of getting a film about a gay activist greenlit. I also found Sean Penn's performance to be overly stereotypical (his "gay" lisp is nowhere to be found in the footage of Harvey Milk in this documentary), and I still think Mickey Rourke wuz robbed. But I thought the film was genuinely moving and painted Milk in a humanist light that seemed universally affecting. When I originally heard The Times of Harvey Milk was being released on Criterion, I cynically assumed it was because of Milk that they were releasing the film, and surely they would have preferred to get the rights to that other Oscar winner. Having now seen this documentary, I know better.
The Times of Harvey Milk is a far superior film because it isn't about sympathizing with the victim of a horrible and senseless crime. It's about a human rights movement that began in that most stereotyped of places and ended up moving people all over the world. The film is about something much bigger than Milk - it's about the world we all grew up in and the steps we will have to make to change that world before we leave. In this regard, it takes its place next to arguably the best documentary ever made, Harlan County, U.S.A. Both films depict a world in which human beings are given less and fight for more. They force the viewer to recognize their neutrality and insist that they take a stand. This is what film is for. It is what it does best. Film lovers cannot feel any other way.