"The Times of Harvey Milk," now at the Biograph, is an unremarkable documentary about the San Francisco politico who, as the first avowedly homosexual supervisor in that city's history, became an icon to the gay movement and, after he was assassinated, a martyr.
Unremarkable, that is, except for Milk himself, whose gaminish presence provides the film with its liveliest moments. Milk's almondish, hooded eyes, elephantine ears and wryly curved nose lent him a punchinello aspect. But the punches he dealt were verbal ones, delivered with agitated sarcasm. During the debate over Proposition 6, which sought to ban homosexuals from the classroom, Milk argued that, "If teachers were going to affect you as role models, there'd be a lot of nuns running around the streets today." And when Ruth Carter Stapleton tried to convert him to Christianity, promising that it would rid him of his dread deviancy, Milk responded that he was surprised that she had shaken his hand. When she asked why, he said, "Because you never know where my hand has been."
But Milk's presence is all too occasional. Instead, there are the expected interviews with Milk's close associates, knitted together by a narration delivered by Tony-winning playwright Harvey Fierstein in his characteristic rasp. The interviews and narration relate Milk's odyssey from New York, where he was a stockbroker and small-time theatrical producer, to San Francisco, where he "came out of the closet," ran a camera store, and became a community organizer in "the Castro," a neighborhood that became a focal point of gay activity.
Milk lost three elections from 1973 to 1976; his big chance came when Mayor George Moscone's District Elections Plan, providing for separate council elections in each neighborhood (rather than citywide), allowed him to put together the coalition of gays, minorities and other outsiders that gained him his office.
Milk took his seat along with a black woman, a women's rights activist, and Dan White, a neighborhood populist who believed that "it's old-fashioned values that made this country," a posture that put him into direct conflict with Milk. White is a villain out of central casting -- with his out-of-step, long sideburns and square, cleft jaw, he'd fit right in with the clean-cut crazies of "Magnum Force." When White tried to regain his seat (after resigning it in a childish fit of pique), Milk lobbied against him, and Moscone was inclined to agree. So one day White went down to City Hall and shot both of them.
The movie explores the period after Milk's death at some length, detailing the trial and White's subsequent conviction on the ludicrously reduced charge of manslaughter; it includes the usual sort of Son of Sam interviews with people who knew White saying what a nice fellow he was, and how they never expected this of him. (When will we get neighbors saying, "I knew all along he was a homicidal maniac because he cut the ears off his dog"?) The whole point of this excursus is to include shots of the riots that ensued after the verdict, when gays trashed City Hall; Milk wasn't merely killed by a jealous colleague -- he died for a movement.
This gay hagiography robs Milk of his humanity, and the movie of its appeal. One woman remembers how she was appalled that people went about their business on the day Milk was shot. "Don't you realize the course of history has been changed?" she recalls asking them. Well, no, they didn't. In its best moments, when people remember simple kindnesses Milk performed for his neighbors, or the loose, egalitarian way he organized his campaign, or the way he could seduce the press, "The Times of Harvey Milk" gives us a man who seems no different from any ordinary liberal politician whom we like because he cares about people; his was the charisma of niceness. That, it seems, was Harvey Milk's real achievement.