KOCH Review: A Sharp, Clever And Juicy Doc

Neil Barsky's documentary KOCH examines the legacy of New York's controversial former mayor, Ed Koch. 

Only fools believe in absolutes. There's no way to govern a large, chaos-prone city like New York and be perfect. In fact, if you come off as perfect, you are probably faking it, and accomplishing nothing. To have a blanket opinion of a man so vital and important as Ed Koch (World War II Vet, US Congressman 1969-1977, New York City Mayor 1978 - 1990, talk radio host, chat show guest & film critic 1990-last week) would be to sell him short. Even if he stomped on your special interest you can't deny that he did it with a sui generis verve that mixed region-specific curmudgeon-ism and impish joie de vivre. Quite frankly, if you didn't at least like the guy's attitude, you probably didn't belong living in New York in the first place.

Ed Koch, the mayor of my childhood and a name spoken in hushed tones as though he were a whiny-voiced, hook-nosed messiah, had tremendous, inexcusable flaws. He also saved the city from insolvency (seriously) and lifted its name out of the mud. It would be foolish to say that, were it not for Koch, New York City today would look like the world's largest Flint, Michigan. Someone else (or, more likely, groups and coalitions) might have turned the city around. But the prevailing narrative of Koch-the-savior has just enough truth to it to be repeated. He went to DC to beg for dough, he overhauled the bloated budgets, he stood up to corrupt unions, he initiated housing projects for the poor and corporate overhaul of Times Square. Each move was painful, each move made the eternally liberal city question itself. (Koch's mantra “I'm a liberal with sanity” is a particularly good one.) Not unimportantly, he did all this by being a character.

Neil Barsky's documentary Koch is full-frontal Koch-the-character for 100 delicious minutes. Mixing outstanding period footage (the graffiti! the ties! the unmasked accents!) and modern-day interviews, Barsky will walk you through his triumphs and trials on a year-by-year basis. It is clearly pro-Koch, but offers screentime to representatives of the two main groups that he butted heads with - the blacks and the gays, to put it in blunt New York Post bold.

Here's where the story gets truly fascinating. Koch's issues with the African American constituency stemmed, in part, from a refusal to buy in to the not-always-benevolent community leaders and the system already in place. He'd tell you that he took the high road, his liberal cred secure, and treated everyone fairly. If a hospital needed to be closed he'd close it. He was foolishly unprepared for how his actions would be interpreted on a street level and this only emboldened him to stonewall further. To reiterate my first point, he believed in absolutes.

Gay activists felt he did nothing to stop the rampant spread of AIDS (though Koch contests this) and the added salt on the wound is that 99.9% of the world is convinced, at this point, that Ed Koch was, indeed, a closeted gay man. (You can watch the Kirby Dick's documentary Outrage for more on this.) Koch refused to ever address the rumors, whipping up a manufactured plea for privacy that didn't quite jibe with a guy who had a Broadway musical about his life running while he was still mayor. Barsky's documentary touches on all of this, and it affords us one last smile to hear Koch bark “none of your fucking business!”

There's also a scene where Koch goes to his sister's family in Scarsdale to break the Yom Kippur fast that is the best, truest scene of Jewish life outside of the work of Barry Levinson. Here the 85-year old Koch and a younger relative take contrary positions on whether or not “it is right” that an Islamic Center should be built a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Koch, hot off a speech he gave at his synagogue, quotes himself, pausing for emphasis as if he were on the pulpit. “Dramatic, no?” he smiles. The relative agrees, but doesn't miss a beat to continue arguing. Then they all eat lox.

Koch isn't just a juicy walk down memory lane for folks from the New York area. It is a sharply stitched together film loaded with dynamite needle-drops, SNL cameos and a clever use of the Helvetica Bold font. (This wasn't just the type used on Koch's first campaign propaganda, it is the unofficial font of New York, appearing throughout the subway system.) I'm well aware that there are some people in far off lands like England, Spain or Wisconsin who might be reading this and have never heard of Ed Koch. Rather than Koch coming off as insider, it ought to inspire more fascination for the greatest city on Earth. I don't care where you are politically, but when an alter kaker Ed Koch is slowly walking down a staircase but has time to mutter, “oh, bullshit!” to a stumping Chuck Schumer making a victory speech just a few feet away, it is really hard not to love the guy.

As a postscript, know that I'm writing this as Mayor Koch's funeral services are wrapping-up at Temple Emanu-El, the Jewish equivalent of St. Patrick's Cathedral. As his casket was taken out the organist played “New York, New York” and it will be brought uptown to Trinity Cemetery, the establishment Episcopal congregation of the city's guided age. It is here where only the toniest of earthworms dine, and Koch's corpse will lay next to those of the Astor family, Clement Clarke Moore, John James Audobon and Eliza Jumel, the former prostitute, December wife of Aaron Burr and doyenne of 19th Century society. To quote J.J. Hunsecker, “I love this stinking town.”

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