Thursday, February 7, 2013

Documentary Reviews: Koch, How to Survive a Plague, The Central Park Five

Directed by Neil Barsky
Opened February 1, 2013

How to Survive a Plague
Directed by David France
In theaters and on demand; on DVD February 26, 2013
The Central Park Five
Directed by Ken Burns, David McMahon, and Sarah Burns
In theaters and on demand; on DVD April 23, 2013

Neil Barsky’s new documentary about the cantankerous former New York mayor (who perhaps not so ironically died the morning the film opened last Friday), Koch—pronounced “kotch,” not “coke,” unlike some crazy right-wing billionaires we know—is an indelible portrait of the man’s long career of public service.

While sympathetic to its chatty subject, it’s not a mere hagiography: Barsky brings up the corruption scandal that nearly sank his administration, his excruciatingly slow response to the burgeoning AIDS crisis in the early ‘80s and, the long-held rumor that he was a closeted homosexual. The intensely private Koch—as part of a lively interview that takes up a large chunk of the movie—barks, “It’s none of your fucking business!” in response.

Koch paints a vivid picture of New York City from the time Koch got into politics though his dozen years as mayor to his later years as commentator and lionized city icon. Koch first won the mayoral election in 1977, and through the choice archival footage married to interviews with friends and foes alike, we see how he remade his beloved city in his image: a no-nonsense, prickly, pugnacious survivor. When he lost the 1989 Democratic primary to David Dinkins, his standard line was “the people have spoken—let them suffer” in response to those who said they missed him.

There’s touching—and now prescient—footage of Koch visiting his own tombstone in a non-Jewish cemetery in Washington Heights in northern Manhattan. He wrote the epitaph himself: he wants to be remembered as serving his country in WWII, in Congress and as mayor of the greatest city in the world. As cinematic epitaphs go, Koch is satisfying.

A devastating piece of cinematic advocacy that rarely becomes strident, How to Survive a Plague powerfully documents how AIDS activists not only helped get the reality of the deadly epidemic into the sights of an inattentive government—both in large cities and in Washington—but also enabled themselves to live on despite the death sentence the disease gave them.

Director David France extensively—and adroitly—intercuts vintage footage with new interviews with the most valuable players in the fight by ACT UP (the most prominent AIDS victims’ group) over so many years of fighting both the disease and the government. France also analyzes the intergroup conflicts that arose and caused splintering at the worst possible time: the politics of this crisis goes beyond Presidents Reagan and Bush doing nothing because the victims were not constituents.

But, as the movie shows in a series of highly emotional interviews, there is a happy ending so far for many of those suffering from AIDS, as new drug combinations are successfully counteracting the disease. But hovering over everything are regret, sadness and rage that nothing was done early enough to save so many others’ lives.

To anyone living in New York City in 1989—I had moved there a few months earlier—The Central Park Five will dredge up unpleasant memories of the infamous “Central Park jogger” case, in which a group of rampaging teenagers nearly killed an innocent woman after beating and gang raping her.

A city-wide lynch-mob mentality had spread from the police to the media to the public—I was immediately convinced of their guilt, as were most other New Yorkers—so no one was surprised by their guilty verdicts. Of course, it turned out that the five teens weren’t guilty—a serial rapist-killer finally confessed to the crime years later, with his DNA positively linked to the victim—and they were belatedly exonerated after four had served out their terms and one was still doing time.

This collaboration of acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns, his daughter Sara Burns and her husband David McMahon looks closely at the evidence (or lack of it) that led to trumped-up charges and convictions in what was, after all, a high-profile case that would have been an municipal embarrassment if no one was caught and punished. More than two decades later, the five men—four were interviewed on camera, the other one only heard, not seen—are awaiting the outcome of their lawsuits against the city for misconduct by the police department (who coerced false confessions) and prosecutors (who ignored evidence exonerating them) over a miscarriage of justice.

The film makes clear that the five accused teens were certainly not angels—there was a lot of thuggish behavior in the park that night by dozens of kids, and they just happened to get caught. And even though their confessions contradicted one another, that didn’t stop them for being found guilty: bungled chronology and contrary physical evidence didn’t matter.

Too bad that no one from the police or prosecution agreed to be interviewed: the film at times seems one-sided for that reason. But its critique of complicit media and political leadership remains disturbing all these years later.

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