Released on the very day that its subject passed away at age 88, Koch is a fitting eulogy for the 105th mayor of New York City. The title may have been held by three men since Ed Koch’s three-term run from 1978 to 1989 but for many New Yorkers, it still belongs to Koch, “the people’s mayor.” Directed by former Wall Street Journal reporter Neil Barsky, the documentary charts both the triumphs and fiascos of the beloved figure while celebrating his singular personality. Quick with a quip and infamously blunt, Koch remained politically active right to the end while reflecting on—and shaping—his own legacy.
Barsky gained Koch’s cooperation on the film—the filmmaker interviewed his subject extensively—yet his portrait of the man shows both his good and bad sides. This full-picture approach is made clear from the outset in a very early scene in which the city council debates whether or not to rename the Queensboro Bridge after the former mayor—the accolades and objections to the idea are expressed with equal fervor. (The result of this vote also serves as a nice bookend for the film.)
After a bitter 1977 election against Mario Cuomo, among others, Koch took control of a city that was bankrupt, crime-ridden, graffitied and depressed. Over the course of his terms, he weathered the city-crippling 1980 transit strike, the poorly handled shutdown of a Harlem hospital, the deadly AIDS epidemic and a municipal corruption scandal that eventually prevented his reelection to a fourth term. But he also spearheaded a housing program that kick-started the rehabilitation of the city for which Rudy Giuliani got most of the credit, all the while polling his constituents with an enthusiastic, “How am I doin’?” Touching on his life and career before then and dipping into his daily life now, Barsky concentrates on these defining dozen years in office.
He also asks what’s been much speculated about: whether the lifelong bachelor was gay. The issue surfaced as early as his first mayoral run, when signs with the slogan “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo” appeared in subway cars. Koch hooked up with Miss America Bess Myerson to survive the election, but he never married and always lived alone. Later, the gay community called on him to come out of the closet, hoping a publicly gay official of his standing could swing support for the AIDS crisis. Confronted point-blank by Barsky, Koch says, “It’s none of your f—king business,” arguing that if he were to answer such a query, he’d be participating in a system that adds sexual orientation to the list of qualifications to run for office.
Koch talks not only to the man himself but political consultants and journalists who provide context to archival photos and footage. It’s limited in its scope and a little inside baseball—believe it or not, New Yorkers, Ed Koch and Big Apple politics, for that matter, just aren’t as ingrained in the culture of the rest of the country. But the film serves as a fine introduction to the man with the funny little voice and big personality who went on to star on The People’s Court, write movie reviews and maintain considerable political influence.
Director: Neil Barsky
Starring: Ed Koch
Release date: Feb. 1, 2013