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A PLACE AT THE TABLE

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In 1969 CBS News broadcast a special documentary called “Hunger in America,” which so stirred public feeling that the Nixon administration responded with government programs that helped to substantially reduce the number of those affected over the course of the next decade. Beginning in 1980, however, political priorities and policies changed, and the documented number of hungry in the country began gradually to rise, until today it’s counted as fifty million, many of them children.

Producer-directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush perhaps hope that their fine but conventional documentary on hunger in contemporary America might have similar impact. It’s unlikely to do so because of changes in political reality and the attitudes of today’s elected leadership and the voting public. But that doesn’t mean that it fails to do an excellent job in laying out the facts, proposing solutions and—most importantly—personalizing the issue by focusing on specific individuals.

Using graphs, statistics, and interviews with activists, social observers, nutritional experts and political figures, as well as archival footage, “A Place at the Table” marshals an array of evidence to show how government subsidy programs, corporate attitudes in agribusiness and location of fully-stocked supermarkets, erratic distribution of fruits and vegetables, and penny-pinching administration of school lunch and breakfast programs have led to serious health issues for a large segment of the population, shown most notably in the obesity epidemic occurring among children (caused, as it’s pointed out, not by too much food but consumption of high-calorie, processed foods). The film is excellent in presenting information on all these matters, and doing so in an accessible, easily digestible fashion. And it doesn’t omit the element of passion in the views of commentators like actor Jeff Bridges, who has been involved in food-distribution programs and even produced a film—“Hidden in America”—dramatizing the issue.

But the film is most powerful when it allows real people—a young Colorado girl unable to keep her mind on schoolwork because of hunger, a single Philadelphia mother tossed off the food stamp program when she finds a job earning a princely $9 an hour, a Mississippi kid suffering from asthma exacerbated by a poor diet and excess weight—to speak for themselves. Graphs and statistics explain the issue; these interviews bring home the reality of it.

It would be nice to think that “A Place at the Table” could have the same effect that Charles Kuralt and his CBS cohorts did in 1969. But this, unhappily, is a different age, and while the filmmakers have done their wok well, it’s unlikely that our politicians or the voting public will respond as those of forty-plus years ago did. More’s the pity, but we’ll probably go on spending trillions on weapons systems while allowing our children to go to bed hungry—a question of skewed priorities that might well be intractable.

KOCH

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In 1971 Walter Matthau played a lovable old geezer in a movie called “Kotch,” but if Neal Barsky is to be believed, that character had nothing on Ed Koch, the three-term mayor of New York profiled in this affectionate documentary. Barsky doesn’t totally ignore the tribulations of Koch’s time in office—or his serious self-inflicted political wounds—but generally underplays them in favor of an overall favorable portrait, and finds the elderly Koch’s curmudgeonly attitude a source of bemused admiration.

Koch came to power at a difficult time in the city’s history, of course—he won in a crowded field at a time of fiscal uncertainty, shortly after a citywide blackout and the rampage of the serial killer called the Son of Sam—and he proved a different kind of Democrat, not just sharp-tongued but conservative in fiscal matters while broadly liberal on social ones (though not sufficiently so for some segments of the traditional Democratic constituency). In some ways he was an early example of the “new Democratic” species that would come to the fore in the Clinton years. But his endless self-confidence, his puckish spirit and his familiar air (“How’m I doin?” he kept shouting to folks on the street) made him a pleasant change for a while, and though he antagonized some core groups in his first term (particularly by closing Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, which he had earlier pledged to keep open), he coasted to a second term in 1981 and won again in 1985, after stumbling in a run for governor in 1982.

It was during Koch’s third term that he found himself buffeted by scandals in which he protested he wasn’t involved but which tarnished him anyway (while burnishing the reputation of prosecutor Rudy Giuliani), and the film shows him suffering public outrage as a result. Barsky also gives substantial space to the mayor’s inadequate response to the AIDS crisis, which was thought especially odd because of persistent rumors that he was gay himself—something he had confronted during his first campaign against Mario Cuomo by a very public relationship with erstwhile Miss America Bess Myerson (though later saying merely that his sexuality was nobody’s business but his own). Those problems, combined with his deteriorating relationship with the African-American community, exacerbated by his frequently ill-thought off-the cuff remarks, prepared the way for his inevitable exit from the New York City political scene.

Observations from journalists and others are included offer assessments about Koch’s tenure in office, many mildly critical but generally tolerant toward a colorful character who made a newsman’s job easier. And certainly Barsky seems charmed by the octogenarian Koch, whom he interviews at length, easily extracting provocative remarks about the past and the present, and follows around on his more recent peregrinations. The brashness that made him a larger-than-life character in the eighties is still there, and the film exults in it. So too are the remnants of old battles: when it’s proposed to rename the Queensboro Bridge after him, several African-American councilman strenuously object. But when the deed is done, Koch accepts the honor with commendable grace, quoting from “The Great Gatsby,” no less, in his brief remarks. (Koch lived to see the finished documentary; he died early this year at age 88.)

“Koch” is obviously a selective piece of work, and it arguably goes a mite easy on its subject. But it offers an engaging if incomplete portrait of an unconventional politician who, for better or worse, was the controversial standard-bearer of a great city during a time of turmoil, tension and enormous social and political change.