“Koch,” the movie, tells the story of former New York City mayor Ed Koch’s rise and fall, alternating between scenes from his mayoralty (1977-1989) and interviews taken with Neil Barsky over the last few years. Koch’s passing on Friday filled the Angelika Film Center with substantially more buzz and energy, though there were still many empty seats for an opening weekend.
The movie was incredibly fun, and I encourage anyone with an interest in New York City to see it. If you follow local politics, there’s not much new ground being broken, and if you lived through this period, who knows how much you want to relive it. But for my generation, who were just kids during the period depicted, the scenes from New York City in the 70s and 80s are eye-opening, and Koch has easily enough star power to keep you entertained.
Ed Koch was born in the Bronx and raised in Newark. Other than a moving anecdote about his first job in the family hat-check business and a brief summary of his 1960s showdown with party boss Carmine de Sapio, the film skips Koch’s early life, World War II service, and days in Congress, and begins with his 1977 run for mayor. The grisly scenes of New York City during the “Bronx is burning” summer were jarring. The colorful characters of the period- Mario Cuomo, Meade Esposito, Percy Sutton, Bella Abzug, make present-day politicians seem pretty boring by comparison.
Barsky moves well between original footage, present-day Koch, and a distinguished set of commenters, such as New York Times writer Joyce Purnick, former pol Carl McCall, and Koch’s likable Chief of Staff Diane Coffey. The film balances praise for Koch’s achievements, like his stewardship of the city’s finances in the late 70s, progressive work on gay rights, and creation of affordable housing in the Bronx, with his flaws, such as his handling of the AIDS crisis and his relationship with the black community. There were numerous and striking scenes of racial tension, perhaps the most remarkable taking place with Koch off-screen, when black and white protesters began brawling in the streets following the Yusef Hawkins murder in 1989. It is startling to think that only 20 years ago racial strife was so vicious between ordinary citizens.
The WWE heel in me was also impressed by Koch’s comfort in the lion’s den. Activists of all kind just barraged him with boos and shouting at public hearings, and rather than walking out or worse (I can imagine present day police just shutting the whole thing down), he stood there and took it, often barking back. In even the most hostile conditions he was rarely flanked by more than a handful of aides and security detail.
I have never seen a documentary subject who loved the camera as much as Ed Koch. His hilarity is what makes a documentary about municipal governance so accessible. Whether he was engaging in banter with his enemies, telling jokes, or ludicrously elevating himself on pedestals, it was hard not to smile. His obsession with his legacy and desperation for relevance veers from amusing (“How am I doing?”) to touching (visiting his tombstone while he is alive) to pathetic (taking up neo-conservative causes in his later years). I was struck by a scene at the end of Andrew Cuomo’s 2010 victory party when one of his most trusted aides remarked that he was excited to go home to his daughter, and that “some things are more important than politics.” The camera cuts to an unresponsive, tired, 86 year-old Ed Koch, who proceeds to go home alone.
In the end, the message was clear: New York City went through an awful lot of turmoil to get to where it is today, and whether Ed Koch was great, terrible, or somewhere in between, he was definitely the mayor.