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HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: The Times of Harvey Milk

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#1 of 6 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted March 09 2011 - 01:31 PM


The Times of Harvey Milk (Blu-ray)
Directed by  Robert Epstein

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1984
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1   1080p   AVC codec  
Running Time: 88 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English
Subtitles:  SDH

Region:  A
MSRP:  $ 39.95

Release Date: March 22, 2011

Review Date: March 9, 2011



The Film



The most important word in the title of Robert Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk is “times” because this marvelous documentary, winner of the 1984 Academy Award and other prizes for documentary filmmaking that year, captures the times of the era it depicts (1977-1978) about as well as any documentary of the same period. Yes, it concentrates on the work of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in U.S. history, during his eleven months in office as one of San Francisco’s eight board of supervisors (city councilmen), his assassination, and its aftermath, but it also chronicles a time in history when gay rights were coming more and more to the forefront of political discussion. In an era where women’s liberation and civil rights for other minorities were gaining increasing visibility, Harvey Milk and others like him were fighting for the rights of all citizens regardless of their race, creed, or sexual orientation. The film touches on all of this during its very concise eighty-eight minute running time by taking the Harvey Milk political story, dividing it into four acts, and presenting it as a roller coaster ride of defeats and victories, triumphs and tragedies that should never be forgotten. Though Gus Van Sant’s marvelous 2009 film Milk covered Harvey Milk’s personal and professional life in entertaining fashion, the emphasis here on the political infrastructure of San Francisco and the battle to retain civil rights for citizens beset by such outrageously blatant anti-rights amendments like Proposition 6 get a full accounting.


Director Robert Epstein and producer Richard Schmiechen have selected eight talking heads for the documentary and wisely they’ve not included the usual suspects one might have expected: ex-lovers or other members of the San Francisco board of supervisors (including Dianne Feinstein who made the pivotal announcement after Milk and mayor George Moscone had been gunned down by ex-supervisor Dan White) but rather people who had been touched either directly or indirectly by Milk and his movement. Among the most compelling is Sally Gearhart, speech professor and political aide to Milk during the Proposition 6 campaign, important to her since it was going to outlaw the hiring of any gay teachers and the immediate firing of any gay teachers already on staff in California. Another speaker whose simple, eloquent words speak straight to the viewer is Jim Elliott, an auto machinist who gives the blue collar worker’s assessment of Milk’s influence over his way of thinking and voting. School teacher Tom Ammiano, aide Anne Kronenberg, and TV reporter Jeannie Yeomans are all well spoken and impressive in their heartfelt rectial of facts and memories of that period in their lives.


Of course, the story of Harvey Milk can’t be told without also relating the stories of mayor George Moscone (who gets slightly less screen time here than he was probably due) and the ill-fated Dan White who pumped three bullets into the body of George Moscone and five into the body and head of Harvey Milk and yet was found guilty only of voluntary manslaughter and ended up serving less than six years in prison. White in particular is a fascinating enigma, and the tape recording of his confession to the police of his actions makes for chilling listening and is one of the high points of the film in its overwhelming emotional candor. In fact, the film’s last quarter hour is an emotional wipeout as the murders, the candlelight vigil, the White trial, and the riots following the outrageous verdict’s announcement all make for mesmerizing viewing, especially if one is ignorant of the history of the period or has not already seen Milk. The filmmakers wisely used actor Harvey Fierstein as the  film’s narrator, an activist with numerous stage and film credits, who lends a tone of utter sincerity and controlled impartiality in describing events that the clips or interviews themselves don’t make clear.



Video Quality



The film is presented in its theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio and features 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. The interview sequences naturally come off strongest with decent clarity and color saturation which sometimes seems a bit thick. The archival footage, of course, runs the gamut in quality from poor to average, often soft and filled with scratches or banding, all part and parcel for a documentary of this kind. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.



Audio Quality



The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound mix is once again at the mercy of the elements which make up the film. Much of the sound in the old footage contains hiss and crackle, pops and muffled speech which no amount of engineering is going to be able to manipulate. Still, the sound has the ring of truth about it given the age of the materials and less than optimum conditions under which some of it was recorded. Of course, all of the interview segments filmed in 1984 feature clear and concise sound which is easily discernible.



Special Features



The audio commentary contains discussions by director Robert Epstein, film editor Deborah Hoffmann, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta who as a frequent customer and visitor to Milk’s camera shop has snapshots from the era used constantly throughout the film. Fans of the movie will really enjoy the in-depth discussions about the movie’s origins, other ideas for the film that were abandoned, and the ultimate fates of some of the film’s participants.


“Postscript” offers three final interviews with some of the film’s talking heads which ultimately weren’t used in the movie but which make very interesting follow-ups to what we already heard from these individuals. They run 2 ¾ minutes in 1080i.


The film’s theatrical trailer runs 3 ¼ minutes in 1080p.


Filmmaker Jim Else who uses The Times of Harvey Milk in his documentary film class as an example of how the form can be done correctly offers his assessment of the movie’s strengths in a 19 ¾-minute video critique. It’s in 1080p.


“Two Films, One Legacy” offers interesting comments from the makers of The Times of Harvey Milk and Milk about each of the films’ strengths using discussion and film clips from the movies. Featured in these discussions are each film’s director (Robert Epstein and Gus Van Sant) and participants Anne Kronenberg and James Franco. It runs 23 minutes in 1080p.


Five audio recordings of Harvey Milk speeches are offered individually for listening. They involve the Dade County loss (13 ¾ minutes), Milk’s speech at the Texas Gay Conference (47 ½ minutes), Milk’s ad about the importance of the Proposition 6 vote (2 ¾ minutes), his speech after the defeat of Proposition 6 (10 minutes), and his political will to be played in the event of his assassination (13 ¼ minutes).


Six close friends of Harvey Milk were interviewed in the preparation of the documentary with the thought that they might prove reliable on-camera subjects, all of whom were later rejected as being too close to the personal life of the supervisor (including ex-lover Scott Smith and close friend Cleve Jones). These black and white pre-interviews run 80 minutes in 1080i.


“From the Castro to the Oscars” feature two segments: a 7 ½-minute vignette filmed at the premiere of the movie at San Francisco’s famed Castro Theater where film historian Vito Russo and director Rob Epstein offered comments, and the 3-minute acceptance speeches of Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen at the Oscar ceremony for the films of 1984. Both are in 1080i.


Two segments deal with the Dan White case. In the first, 4 additional minutes of footage is shown that was not used in the film. Then, a 29 ½-minute panel discussion including members of the successful defense team who represented White in his trial is shown. Both are in 1080i.


Harry Britt, who succeeded Harvey Milk as the district supervisor, is featured in a 9 ¾-minute speech filmed in 2003 in 1080i.


On the 25th anniversary of the deaths of Milk and Moscone, a candlelight memorial service featured speeches by Moscone’s daughter Rebecca and Milk friend Tom Ammiano, here presented in a 7 ¼-minute segment in 1080i.


The enclosed 30-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, the chapter listing, a generous selection of photographs, critic B. Ruby Rich’s celebration of director Robert Epstein and his documentary, Harvey Milk’s nephew Stuart Milk’s paean to his uncle, and film restorer Ross Lipman’s discussion on what went into restoring this award-winning documentary.


The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.



In Conclusion

4.5/5 (not an average)


An outstanding documentary about one of the most galvanizing periods in American political history, The Times of Harvey Milk is a must-see feature even more than a quarter century after its initial release. A superb bonus feature package completes this essential Criterion release. Highly recommended!




Matt Hough

Charlotte, NC

#2 of 6 OFFLINE   Jason_V



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Posted March 09 2011 - 02:57 PM

As soon as this one comes down to a reasonable price, I'll be grabbing it.  I've always heard good things...and your review just bolsters them, Matt.

#3 of 6 OFFLINE   Mark-P



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Posted March 10 2011 - 05:42 AM

Due to the source material, it's probably not a significant upgrade for those of us who already own the DVD.

#4 of 6 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted March 10 2011 - 08:11 AM

I didn't own the DVD so I couldn't do a comparison. The notes do indicate that the commentary has been ammended with some updated comments, but again I couldn't do an A-B comparison because I didn't own the earlier release.

#5 of 6 ONLINE   Steve Tannehill

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Posted March 30 2011 - 06:30 AM

The DVD is of the 1999 UCLA restoration, as is the blu-ray.  The DVD still looks pretty good considering the resolution of much of the source material.  But there are additional supplements on the blu-ray that make it a worthwhile purchase.

Even though Criterion had the release date as 3/22, Amazon had it as 3/29, and delivered it then.

#6 of 6 OFFLINE   Russell G

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Posted March 30 2011 - 07:42 AM

I was going to pass on this one since I thought "Milk" was good enough for me. This sounds fascinating and those extras are hard to resist. Thanks for the review, I'll also be keeping my eye out for a price drop.