What an entertaining rapscallion Ed Koch was during his run as mayor of New York in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Popular, polarizing, loved, hated, even 20-plus years after he left office, he never failed to attract a crowd as he walked the streets of the city. Which he did virtually every day until he died at 88, ironically on Feb. 1, the very day Neil Barsky’s documentary chronicling his life and his legacy hit New York City theaters.
Barsky’s excellent directing debut, simply titled “Koch,” finds the former mayor in that final year as feisty and brash as ever. And as entertaining. Though the film, more than two years in the making, was never intended as such, it plays like the kind of eulogy Koch would have approved — neither fawning nor eviscerating but always compelling.
Fundamentally, Barsky takes a fair measure of the man, more introspection than expose. The appeal is in its crisp summation of a potent time in one of this country’s most distinctive political lives. The film hits the highs of Koch’s efforts to stave off bankruptcy for the city and end a transit strike as well as the lows of the municipal corruption scandal that would end his dream of being a four-term mayor, all neatly packed into a very tight hour and a half.
If you’re wondering if Barsky gets Koch to answer the one question that dogged him from his earliest days — was he gay? — he remains just as tight-lipped as ever. That his first, and seemingly most enduring love, was for New York City was never in question.
Despite that one evasion, there is a remarkable candor as Koch reflects back on his life and his legacy, quickly warming to the topic, clearly his favorite. The rarely censored and often acerbic thoughts that got him into trouble during his political heyday serve us well, a reminder of how refreshing such candor can be in contrast to the over-managed political discourse that dominates today.
Barsky, a former journalist, insisted that Koch would have no control over the film, his only choice was whether to participate. Still, it feels as if the politician charmed the filmmaker a bit like he tried to do with his various constituencies. There is certainly a sense of respect as the film traces Koch’s rise from obscure congressman to win the mayoral race in 1977 through the personal devastation of his loss to David Dinkins that forced him from office in 1989.
Through extensive conversations, Koch emerges as exactly what we saw in public, glad-handing and governing, his “How am I doing?” as ubiquitous as that grin. The foes are given almost as much screen time as the friends in trying to put his accomplishments and his failures in perspective. As the Rev. Calvin Butts would say, “He was just haunted and damned by one helluva personality.”
The filmmaker is both liberal and judicious in his use of the rich trove of news footage. It pays off in creating a fascinating snapshot of the past. The decay that held New York in its grip when Koch took office can be seen in the subway cars covered in graffiti, the homeless camped out in a crime-ridden Times Square, blocks of apartment buildings literally crumbling away. Then the turnaround orchestrated by Koch as images of a shinier city emerge from the grime.
Among the most interesting, though, are the shots that capture the genesis of what is hard not to think of as Koch’s kitsch factor: the gangly young congressman working a subway entrance in the ‘70s in his bid to become mayor; his marches over the bridges into Manhattan with the masses to force a quick end to the 1980 transit strike.
The film is not shy in examining the increasing rage of Koch’s original voter base as the liberal activism that got him elected all but disappeared in his increasingly conservative stances. Those divisions are chronicled in the angry protests by the black community over his controversial decision to close Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital and in probing his always troubled relationship with the gay community. That dicey relationship began with the sudden appearance of former Miss America Bess Myerson at his side when questions of his sexual orientation first surfaced and continued with a rising tide of criticism of his handling of the growing AIDS epidemic.
Barsky does a good job of taking all the complexity of such a major personality and the times in which he flourished and boiling it down to the essentials. Ultimately, the film leaves you with the sense that as much as Koch reenergized New York, the city — ever willful, always needful — also made the man. That was the love affair that mattered.