THE TIMES of Harvey Milk," a documentary about the life and death of San Francisco's first openly gay elected official, opens with an eerie irony -- the sound of Milk's tape-recorded will, meant to be played only in the event of his death by assassination. Milk, a flamboyant champion of minority rights, the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Castro Street," knew he was a target and refused to let it deter him.

"I fully realize," says Milk's prescient recording, "a person who stands for what I stand for . . . becomes a potential target for someone who is disturbed . . . afraid."

Director Robert Epstein's urgently paced and moving documentary neither stones the assassin, fellow city Supervisor Dan White, nor canonizes Milk. But no attempt is made to conceal the film's unabashed emotional content -- at one point, several interviewees struggle with tears or let them flow -- and the result is neither maudlin or mawkish.

Epstein keeps the focus on the public, political Milk. And Milk's personality -- irreverent clowning and concerned -- perfectly matched the jubilance of the early gay rights movement. An expert at media manipulation, Milk welcomed the splashy press he created. In one hilarious tactic captured in the documentary, Milk claims that anyone who could solve the city's pet-poop problem would be elected mayor, then plants a dog dropping on his own front lawn and steps in it, to the delight of the news crews.

A montage of snapshots and news footage establishes Milk's rise; the controversial climate of the time is candidly reconstructed by a procession of articulate witnesses -- men and women, straight and gay, co-workers and constituents. Subdued narration is provided in the unmistakable gravel voice of gay playwright Harvey Fierstein. Particularly poignant is the testimony of an auto mechanic, who retraces how Milk's influence moved him from disgust to reluctant admiration of Milk and his ilk. Epstein's work is remarkably complete; the novelty of Milk's brief political career meant lavish coverage by local television news and a wealth of footage to draw from.

The documentary leaves behind a series of indelible images: the stunned silence following Dianne Feinstein's announcement of the deaths of Milk and Mayor George Moscone, the candlelight procession of thousands the night after the shootings and, six months later, the violent "White Night" of rage and betrayal after the announcement of White's sentence on the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter. He served five years in prison.

"The Times" serves not only as the story of Milk's journey from big-eared Long Island kid to political renegade to the first gay rights martyr, but also as a capsule of the fledgling gay rights movement that Milk personified. Watching Milk's constantly exuberant image as the stream of events follows a bulletlike trajectory to the inevitable tragedy gives an unsettling feeling of foreboding.

THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK -- At the Biograph.