The self-proclaimed "Mayor Of Castro Street," New York stockbroker turned San Francisco activist Harvey Milk rose to prominence as the first openly gay politician elected to public office in California. By the time Milk was elected to a City Supervisor position in the '70s, San Francisco was already a gay Mecca, but the presence of a successful gay politician was such an anomaly at the time that the reporters who covered Milk practically made "homosexual" his unofficial first name. Milk made the most of his brief time in power, successfully fighting an anti-gay-rights initiative and building a grassroots coalition among gays and other groups marginalized by the political mainstream. In the conventional but moving Oscar-winning documentary The Times Of Harvey Milk, which has just been released in a two-disc, 20th-anniversary edition, Milk's political acumen is illustrated partially through his relationship with a brusque union machinist who concedes that he'd probably still be a reflexive homophobe if he'd never met Milk. The machinist's newfound tolerance is attributable at least partly to self-interest: A skilled politician, Milk was able to get things done, a skill that transcends cultural barriers.
Milk's ambition, drive, guile, and sexual orientation put him on a collision course with almost creepily wholesome-seeming fellow supervisor and former boxer, fireman, and police officer Dan White, a real-life version of the all-American, baby-faced sniper in Targets. Enraged that Mayor George Moscone wouldn't allow him to return to office after he abruptly resigned, White killed Moscone and Milk, then got off with a manslaughter conviction amid what became known as "the Twinkie defense," which used a diet heavy on junk food as evidence that White wasn't in his right mind. White is such a perversely fascinating figure that The Times Of Harvey Milk doesn't seem to deal with him or his much-publicized trial as extensively as it should. Fortunately, the double-disc set compensates with hours of bonus material that delves deeper into various aspects of his life and career.
By the time the film reaches its wrenching conclusion, it's poignantly conveyed the profound sense of loss that followed Milk's murder. White robbed the gay-rights movement of a charismatic leader and eloquent voice, but he accidentally gave it something a smart political operative like Milk would surely have appreciated the power and value of: a bona fide martyr.