30th Oct2020

‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Chris Cummings

Features: Harvey Milk, Anne Kronenberg, Tory Hartmann  | Written by Judith Coburn, Carter Wilson | Directed by Rob Epstein

Back in 1984, director Rob Epstein (Lovelace, Howl) along with narration writers Judith Coburn and Carter Wilson, worked together to bring us the acclaimed documentary film, The Times of Harvey Milk. A powerful 90 minute look at the successes and eventual tragic assassination of the trailblazing first elected gay city supervisor of San Francisco. Now, some 36 years later, Criterion, here in the UK, have brought us a spectacular release of the film, along with an array of special features.

Harvey Milk was an outspoken man, a human rights activist and the first openly gay politician in U.S history to be elected to public office. His inspiration to millions of people around the world is well-documented and it continues to this very day, some 42 years after he was killed. This Oscar winning documentary was a vital one, important on so many levels, and seeing it given this kind of respectful treatment is wonderful. A film that aims to look at gay life in America during a certain time period, about how Harvey Milk attempted to fight for equality, to give hope to those who were, make no mistake about it, having to hide who they were in order to have a life without daily volatility and fear.

The Times of Harvey Milk is, in many ways, an echo of the hope that Harvey Milk attempted to bring to so many, opening his dialogue and message to a wider audience who may not be familiar with him or what he did. The documentary features a range of relevant and beautifully conducted interviews and it paints a very specific and (here’s this word again) powerful picture of the landscape of the 1970s in America. It’s a political story in many ways, but also a very human one. A story of a man who was so very strong, who used his bravery and desire for equality to fight for gay rights before anybody else did at this level. The film, and Epstein, aim to tell this important story with passion, with honesty, and with a strong impulse of integrity and clarity.

The features on this release of The Times of Harvey Milk are wonderful and many offer unique further insight into the man on which the film lays its head. The transfer is fantastic and the audio-commentary with director Epstein, is really interesting and offers a great deal of understanding and details that were, for me anyway, unknown. The film, Milk, that was released in 2008, starring Sean Penn and directed by Gus Van Sant, is spoken of a little, too. There are also a few unused interview clips, rare audio recordings of Harvey Milk himself, panels and trailers and all that good stuff. The release also comes with a nice glossy booklet featuring an essay from film critic B. Ruby Rich. Here’s a full list of those extras;

Special Features:

  • Director-approved digital transfer, from the meticulous UCLA Film and Television Archive restoration, with DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Audio commentary featuring director Robert Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffmann, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta
  • New interview with documentary filmmaker and UC Berkeley professor 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
  • Postscript containing interview clips not used in the film
  • Rare collection of audio and video recordings of Harvey Milk
  • Interview excerpts from Epstein’s research tapes
  • Footage from the film’s Castro Theatre premiere and the 1984 Academy Awards ceremony
  • Panel discussion on Supervisor Dan White’s controversial trial
  • Excerpts from the twenty-fifth anniversary commemoration of Milk’s and Mayor George Moscone’s assassinations
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A 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 the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Ross Lipman

There are indeed films that come along every once in a while that are so important and so vibrantly necessary that everybody should see them. The Times of Harvey Milk is certainly one of those films, and through it’s acclaim and critical success, through its many years of being considered such a vital documentary, it still remains a piece of work that has a great deal to say, covering the life and death of a man who gave himself to his cause, with his heart and his soul. A wonderful release from Criterion only makes it easier to recommend this. It’s the sort of film that makes you angry at the injustice and then makes you feel tearful at the sheer thought of inequality that we are still seeing every day, all these years later. It’s moving, engrossing and so absolutely essential.

The Times of Harvey Milk is out now on Blu-ray from Criterion.


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