There’s been something of a wave of documentaries in the past couple of years taking a look at the New York City of the 1980s and early ’90s. There was “The Central Park Five,” which looked at the unjustly decided rape case, and then “How to Survive a Plague,” about the generation of AIDS activists who fought for a cure. Now we have “Koch,” a portrait of Ed Koch, who was mayor during both of the above periods.
“Koch,” the first movie directed by newspaper reporter-turned-hedge fund manager-turned-filmmaker Neil Barsky, has the distinction of almost certainly being the first documentary in history to be released on the same day that its subject passed away. But it’s also a fascinating, multi-faceted look at a very complicated man, a quintessential New Yorker who was both an uncommonly skilled politician and, at times, a tremendous jerk.
The film cuts back and forth between news footage from Koch’s political career and modern-day interviews with the man. We also see Koch at a ballroom election-night celebration, saying not-very-nice things about certain politicians of his own party, and also debating the proposed “Ground Zero Mosque” with a relative. We also see him at the dedication of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.
“This city was on the balls of its ass,” we’re told in a flashback to Koch’s first campaign for mayor, and the film gives Koch a great deal of credit for the renaissance the city enjoys after its mid-’70s nadir- credit which, in recent years, has more often gone to Rudy Guiliani.
However, this film isn’t a pure hagiography either; it has no qualms about pointing out the less-savory aspects of Koch’s career, from his poor handling of racial politics- Rudy certainly wasn’t the first loud, brash New York mayor who often clashed with racial minorities- to the scandals that brought about the end of his time in office.
“Koch” also addresses both the decades-old rumors that Koch, a lifelong bachelor, was gay, as well as the question of whether he did enough as mayor to address the AIDS epidemic. (Koch stays silent on the gay question, as he did until the end of his life.)
The film also provides us a look back at a very different place than the New York of today, which was at the same time much grittier and crime-ridden yet much more authentic. We also get a glimpse of the 1980s version of Al Sharpton- the large, combative agitator who favored purple jogging suits and medallions, as opposed to the more mild-mannered, stick-thin, designer suit-wearing talk show host of today.
But while I was in school he actually taught a course at my college, and in doing so often made a habit of shouting “you don’t know what you’re talking about!” at students who said less-than-sharp things- words that came as a huge shock to children of the ’90s who were used to being coddled by their professors. Some students were horrified, but others had a true appreciation for this one-of-a-kind American. That was Ed Koch in a nutshell, and Barsky’s film conveys that quite nicely.