I saw Gus Van Sant's Milk Monday and then the '84 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk this evening. The works were both top quality, but differed substantially in their approach. The documentary was a straight journalistic take on the achievements of a grass roots and politically active public figure (who was also openly gay) while the "fictional" work revolved around the life of Harvey Milk, his struggles in gaining power in San Francisco and the gay movement in The Castro in the 70s.
These films both shared a lot of content, the fictional film even replicating the exact news footage used in the documentary (with Sean Penn in the place of Milk, of course). This gave Van Sant's "fictional" movie a realistic quality that almost superceded that of the documentary version for me. The concluding sequence of Milk, the candlelight vigil, brought tears to my eyes in the way the documenatary almost did, but failed. I think this is because the fictional version let audiences identify and root for the person of Harvey Milk, not just his issues.
The biggest differences between the two films were the treatments of Milk's early career and the fight against Prop. 6. The documentary glossed over Milk's first 3 political defeats and instead focused on the policies he pursued while in office. I think Van Sant's version was more effective because we got to go along for the ride with Harvey as he learned how to play the political game and took something from every loss - every setback. We got to see the effects each campaign had on his personal life (endearing the audience to the character) and on the Castro gay movement as well. The fight against Prop. 6 was also handled more effectively in the fictional version, creating Anita Bryant and Senator Briggs as evil enemies of human rights and even reason. Their defeat (and Milk's subsequent triumph) made me want to stand up and cheer.
Overall, I thought both works were powerful and well-executed, but I found myself uncharacteristicly enjoying a work of fiction over a non-fictional journalistic ouvre. The sense of identification Van Sant created between the audience and Harvey Milk's movement coupled with the deeper look at Milk's personal life left me feeling as if the "fictional" film was more real than the REAL documentary.