New York City mayor Ed Koch, who died this past week, loved to say “How’m I doing?” It served as a trademark plea for affirmation from the city he governed from 1978 through 1989. Koch was a relentless striver, rising from modest origins to become one of America’s best-known political figures. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Neil Barsky tackles Ed Koch’s many facets in his directorial debut, entitled Koch. This historically-minded documentary is authoritative in tone while simultaneously painting an impassioned portrait of a man acutely defined by his limitations. It is a familiar story of fierce careerism, both laudatory yet factual in its approach to his controversial tenure in office. And while Koch the politician may have leveraged his participation for a chance to define his own legacy, Koch the movie nevertheless allows a close look at an important, private man.
The film opens with members of New York’s current City Council debating the merits of adding Ed Koch’s name to the Queensboro Bridge. Though Koch is dead now, he was still very much alive during these debates, and we learn that Koch has quite an ambiguous legacy and for the City Council members. His divisive stances on race, class, and sexuality are still with us, and the passion over the naming of a bridge is testament of the extent to which Ed Koch created the New York City of today, for better or for worse.
1977 was a pivotal year for New York. On the verge of financial collapse, the city teetered from surging crime and fleeing business. The mayoral race that year was crackling with high voltage political star power. Among the stars: Congresswoman Bella Abzug, at the forefront of the national woman’s liberation movement, and Democratic powerbroker Mario Cuomo. Trailing at fourth or fifth place was Koch, the slight, awkward-looking congressman from Greenwich Village whose campaign methods included canvassing the Manhattan streets with a PA system.
In July, New York suffered a blackout that fueled arson, looting, racial tensions, and a sense of anarchy. Koch, a quintessential political opportunist, was forceful in speaking out in favor of capital punishment and took the opportunity to define himself as the moderate candidate against a field of classic soft-seeming liberals. As Koch rose in the polls, smear campaigns cropped up with homophobic slogans such as “Vote for Cuomo Not the Homo.” Deftly, his campaign cooked up a faux love interest in the form of a former Miss America. It worked, but his victory was bittersweet—although he won the race, he’d inherited the steaming, nearly bankrupt mess that was New York City.
The mayor quickly began rounding up important support on Capitol Hill. In a cost-cutting effort, he ordered the closing of Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, sparking accusations of racism that to this day resound in New York’s considerable African American community. In the film, Koch admits it was a political mistake – yet not a moral one. Barsky allows Koch many opportunities like this to review and reflect on some of his more controversial moves. The mayor rarely expresses regret about any of his choices, and Barsky doesn’t provide many contrary opinions, either by presenting contradictory historical facts or allowing the mayor’s contemporaries a chance to give their version. What emerges is less a critical assessment of Koch’s legacy and more an attempt at fixing what that legacy will be.
The documentary shows the many iterations and fluctuating statuses of both the city of New York and the former mayor, delivering what is ultimately equal in biographical content and historical material. The audience is made keenly aware of our current economic plight and is shown the socioeconomic forces that transpired in the 1970’s to build the city we know today. But the film is not negative, and there are a fair number of talking heads that praise Koch for having spent massively on housing, suggesting that the massive expenditure helped reduce crime rates as much as Rudolf Giuliani’s police tactics.
Recently, Koch has become an increasingly polarizing figure, haunting several recent documentaries and plays. Koch makes his most notable appearance in the Oscar-nominated documentary How To Survive a Plague and the restaging of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (soon to be a HBO film). In both productions, Koch plays the same character: almost Roy Cohen-like in his abandonment of morality in the face of catastrophic circumstances. Gay leaders condemn Koch for not only staying silent about his sexuality but for inaction around the AIDS crisis, laying blame for the hundreds of thousands of deaths at his feet. Koch himself reviewed France’s documentary, lauding the spirit of the very protesters who targeted him in the ’80s. Is this an attempt at atonement, an admission of guilt? It’s unclear, and Koch doesn’t make it any clearer.
There is an elegiac nature to Koch. However, this is apparently lost on Koch himself. He eschewed love for career and appears happiest when in the public eye or with his extended family. He takes great pride in his family and Jewish roots, returning home every night to an apartment festooned with large photos and drawings of him—accolades from a life that he describes as an “acting job.” For anyone who strives to understand modern New York City, Koch provides a not only a history lesson and a reminder of the early 80’s in New York, but a rare portrait of a private man. Barsky has gotten as close as this deeply private man will allow. Behind all the bluster and showmanship, we see very little of the soul of the man who transformed New York City. Perhaps Barsky has exposed all that is there to see.
The Upside: Essential viewing for anyone wanting to understand the 1980’s and the role that New York City played in our national consciousness.
The Downside: Barsky trades in balance for Koch’s participation. Often displaying boosterism when a more critical eye would have made a deeper and more insightful film.
On The Side: Mayor Koch made headlines on the film’s opening day by passing away.