First-time film director Neil Barsky has assembled a largely flattering, nostalgic if not downright hero-worshipping biodoc with “Koch,” intercutting scenes of an elderly, reminiscent Ed Koch with memory-jogging news footage of his volatile three-term reign as the 105th mayor of New York. Barsky wisely includes just enough dissenting voices and admissions of grievous error by Koch himself to prevent the pic from seeming like a 100% feel-good puff piece. Koch’s death at age 88, which occurred mere hours before the film’s theatrical release, will stir audience interest, especially on the ex-mayor’s home turf.
Despite its curiosity-satisfying footage of Koch puttering around his small apartment or gamely dragging himself to political functions or TV gigs, the real meat of “Koch” lies in its fairly compelling film-clip selections, which play like blasts from the past, and in the astuteness of certain talking heads. Authors and journalists like Bob Herbert, Michael Goodwin, Sam Roberts and Wayne Barrett supply virtually all the pic’s intellectual content, providing yeoman service whenever called upon.
Trips down Memory Lane include a campaigning Koch cozying up to the beloved Miss America Bess Myerson, enlisted to combat the stealth proliferation of “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo” posters; mayor-elect Koch’s cleverly cavalier appearance before William Proxmire’s Senate Banking Committee; and Koch’s improvised street performance as a “cheerleader,” in Herbert’s words, happily egging on thousands of nine-to-five commuters trekking across the Brooklyn Bridge because of a transit strike.
The hits keep coming in the footage from the early-to-mid-’80s, as Koch was easily re-elected and further evolved his bigger-than-life razzle-dazzle, his improbable whiny-voiced, wisecracking theatrics spotlit on “Saturday Night Live” and commemorated in song samples from “Mayor: The Musical.”
But the tide turned in Koch’s third term as residue from previous political compromises returned with a vengeance. Questionable bedfellows, who helped Koch win the mayoralty and backed his unsuccessful run for governor, blighted New York with an ever-unfolding Parking Bureau extortion affair involving bid rigging and phony contracts, uncovered and prosecuted by Rudy Giuliani, embarrassingly enough.
Next, during the worsening AIDS epidemic, New York’s failure to provide medication, institute any citywide prevention strategy or come up with a public education plan seemed egregiously hypocritical because, by now, Koch was widely perceived by the gay community as a closeted gay man.
But it was Koch’s racial tone-deafness — which once allowed him to deny the existence of police brutality, to break a campaign promise by closing down Harlem’s Syndenham Hospital and to adopt an unduly aggressive style with black leaders — that left him without credibility as a mediator when violence erupted in Bensonhurst following the racially motivated murder of black teen Yusuf Hawkins. To quote journalist Sam Roberts, “There was something missing … some synapse that wasn’t there.”
Evidently sorely missing the ex-mayor’s capacity to gin up local controversies, the Gotham press has treated “Koch” more as a hot news story than as a film release, with the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News and especially the New York Post mining the docu for tantalizing tidbits to appear in print. But audiences expecting something scandalous (galvanized by, say, a Post article suggesting Koch called Cuomo a “schmuck” after his gubernatorial win) will find the reality much tamer.
Divulging the answer to the big question posed during a city council meeting that serves as the film’s rather forced framing device, whether the Queensboro Bridge should be renamed in honor of Ed Koch, requires no spoiler alert.