Koch, an even-keeled documentary about the formidable Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, is a fun reminder of how gritty and borderline unlivable the city was in the 70s and 80s, before everything got gentrified and hipsterized and made into a theme park. Not that we miss the days of graffiti-covered subways, junkies, and garbage-strewn streets, but anyone who loves New York City and watches the footage of it burning with arson, riots, looting, and plain collapse, has to pine a little bit for its edgier days.
Into a metropolis on the verge of bankruptcy, came Edward Koch, a lifelong politician--and lover of attention--who ended up being, for better or worse, one of the most charismatic leaders, and a three-time mayor of New York City. A closeted gay man, fiercely defensive of his own closet, Koch was attacked by gay groups for not doing enough at the time of the AIDS crisis.
While he was perceived as being indifferent to gay issues because of his own gay issues, he nevertheless passed gay anti-discrimination legislation at a time when Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone of San Francisco got killed for attempting to do the same. Yet this was a man who, in the '70s, faked a relationship with a former beauty queen in order to win his first mayoral race against Mario Cuomo ("Vote for Cuomo, not the homo," went the slogans, which are included in the doc). In short, Koch is a film about a brilliant, larger than life, complicated gay man. The fact that the 88-year-old is currently being treated for health problems only complicates the film's release this week in another unusual twist of fate.
Like all world class narcissists, Koch's hubris seems to be his lack of empathy (not as bad as Rudolph Giuliani's, but close), be it with the black community on the closing of a hospital in Harlem, or his unsympathetic response to the murder of a black man at the hands of white youths in Brooklyn; or his lack of compassion, whether real or perceived, at the time of the AIDS crisis in the '80s. In retrospect, perhaps a few words of solace or support for these communities would have garnered him respect and loyalty. But as firsttime director Neil Barsky shows through archival footage and other talking heads, Koch didn't have it in him. He liked to rule and to antagonize, with bluntness, charm and chutzpah.
Still, Ed Koch is responsible for urban projects of enormous consequence, like the redevelopment of Times Square from a squalid, crime-ridden porn hub to the tacky, but somehow awesome tourist trap it is today. As Barsky shows, Koch saved New York from bankruptcy by adopting draconian measures, allowed a mass transit strike to go on for 11 days, showing the unruly city that he meant business, and left an enduring legacy of public housing which turned around hellish neighborhoods and contributed to the improvement of living conditions for many poor people in New York. Yet he had such an outsized personality, and was so diplomatically challenged, that he also fomented great racial and political tensions.
Koch was (and remains) an attention seeker, not a conciliator. He buttered nobody up. Early in his career, he got in bed with corrupt political bosses whose graft came back to haunt him, ending his one of a kind, brilliant career as mayor. With unfettered access to Koch, Barsky, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, still manages to present a nuanced, complex and entertaining portrait of one of the most colorful characters in New York City history. Just to hear the real "Noo Yawk" accents of the distinguished talking heads in this film is a source of joy. Koch is a fascinating glimpse, not only of the man, but of the decades when he ruled New York, changing it forever, mostly for better.