Hilton Als on Milk and Harvey Milk at NYRB:
Milk received eight nominations for this year’s [Academy] awards; among them are [Gus] Van Sant for Best Director, [Dustin Lance] Black for his script, and [Sean] Penn for his impersonation of a man who did not find his true calling until he was forty-three years old. In the film, Milk doesn’t make much of a point about those lost years. “Forty years old and what have I done with my life?” he asks a new lover near the beginning. But the script is never explicit about what prevented him from living fully before 1973, the pivotal year in which he opened his camera store in the Castro. For a better sense of the painful secrecy Milk endured as a closeted gay man living in a pre-Stonewall world, and of the subsequent, purposeful freedom he felt during his belated coming-out, one can turn not only to Robert Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s exceptional 1984 film, The Times of Harvey Milk (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1985), but to the bits of documentary footage Van Sant inserts into Milk‘s manufactured world.
Especially moving are the silent black-and-white images that make up the movie’s title sequence, in which well-groomed, thin, and for the most part white young men are rounded up in bars, cuffed, and arrested, while newspaper articles act as a kind of graphic voiceover: “Homosexuals and Police Clash”; “Tavern Charges Police Brutality”; “Police Start Crackdown on Homosexual Bars, Arrest 6.” These prefatory images, set apart from the main narrative, remain the film’s clearest statement of an essential fact: for most of his life, Milk lived in terror of arrest, interrogation, and punishment. [more]