With all the notoriety now surrounding the Hollywood bio-pic of Milk (see my review here), it's no surprise that the original Milk, also known as Rob Epstein's Oscar winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, would resurface. The film was released in 1984, six years after Milk's death by assassination, and also coincidentally, the year of shooter Dan White's release from prison. Despite the fact that the film was made decades ago, long before computers and even fax machines (as Rob joked), it's still as relevant today as it was then (and Hollywood would have to agree). A few weeks ago, hulu.com began streaming the film, and it was there that I was able to see it for the first time. However, last night, I was lucky enough to get to see it on the big screen at the Jacob Burns with Epstein himself there to talk about his creative process. There was something about seeing this film with an audience, especially after the release of Milk, that made last night very special. It was one of those times when you could tell everyone was reacting in unison. There was no doubt that the film nailed every minute.
Epstein's original documentary brainchild had been to do a film about the Brigg's Initiative (aka Prop 6). However, soon after beginning to do early research, he found that the right story to tell might be about Harvey Milk. Milk had become an icon for San Francisco and the Gay Rights movement, but it was through this documentary that much more of the world came to know about his legacy. The story is told through narration by different people who knew and were affected by knowing Harvey. Epstein interviewed everyone from the now famous Anne Kronenberg (his campaign manager) to a union machinist, who before meeting Harvey thought "if you beat up a gay, you were doing the community a service." The one thing all the narrators had in common, is that they came to love Harvey, and not only because of what he stood for, but because he was sometimes insane, rebellious, and always funny. Epstein hit gold with each of the storytellers, but that was in no way by accident. He, and others, spent months interviewing hundreds of people who knew Harvey (including lover Scott Smith who's not in the film, but is played in Milk by James Franco). Ultimately it was narrowed down to the right 8 people. Each voice gave you an insight, not only to Harvey, but to the issues of the time and how they affected them as individuals. They all do an incredible job of making you fall in love with Milk, and subsequently help you feel the weight of their loss. Their pain becomes yours.
The documentary does many things which the film Milk does not, one of which is go into the trial of Dan White, one of the most infamous trials to date. We discover that the man literally got away with murder. And not because of the "twinkie defense" as claimed, but because he was a handsome, white, catholic former fire fighter... and people like that just don't go committing murder in cold blood. While I understand the reason for Milk not telling this part of the story, I am glad that the documentary does. It is an extremely poignant part of the film about our justice system, and how too often, it just doesn't work. When doing a restoration of the film, Epstein had a option to add in a card at the end of the film saying that White committed suicide in 1985, but chose not to, deciding to keep the film intact as it was when finished.
The film is edited beautifully, from the opening of Diane Feinstein pronouncing the deaths of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk, to the incredibly beautiful candlelight march shots. The score by Mark Ishman is so on point, that it, like the film itself, has become iconic. It's an incredible story that Epstein was brave for telling (especially at the time). To culminate all the hard work (sans computers), Epstein was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary, a well deserved win. Towards the end of the Q&A, moderator (NYTimes Critic) Janet Maslin asked Epstein if he remembered his acceptance speech. He responded with a little laugh and said "Being Jewish, I didn't want to write anything down, thinking I might curse it, but then you have to write something... People started to say we were going to win, and I couldn't talk for a week. I do remember I thanked my partners on the film, and my partner in life." Throughout the interview, Maslin made no qualms about her strong feelings that Epstein was not thanked enough (though thanked in the credits) by the creators behind Milk. I understand her being of this opinion, given the rave review she gave to the documentary when it first came out and her emotional loyalty to it, but a Hollywood film and a documentary are entirely different no matter how you slice it. I think both films deserve a lot of credit in their own right, but being that the documentary paved the way for a story like this to be told, Epstein will always be considered a true original.
Short and Sweet
Gorgeous and emotionally compelling. The Times of Harvey Milk is an incredible example of what a good documentary can accomplish, and Epstein's look into Milk's public life shows you how much one person can accomplish, even if their life was cut short. While it was amazing to see it in a theater, it's good to watch this one at home, cause you'll probably cry (it's ok to admit it). Well edited, beautiful score, perfect narrative structure... it hits on all marks. And meeting Rob Epstein was an awesome (overwhelming) bonus!
"I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you... and you... and you... Gotta give 'em hope."
- (The real) Harvey Milk