Koch | Movie review
This profile of the late NYC mayor is more polite than its subject.
In a move morbidly worthy of a chronic publicity hound, Ed Koch died hours before this namesake documentary opened in New York, the city he presided over from 1978 to 1989. For those seeking a primer on his time in office, Koch runs through the highlights: unlikely campaign success in 1977; bringing the city back from bankruptcy; refusing to yield to unions, notably in a 1980 transit strike; laying the groundwork for Times Square’s renewal/gaudification; and, in what the movie sees as his greatest legacy, launching a massive public-housing initiative. Journalists and former aides set the agenda. Talk of friction with the African-American community is countered with testimonials; acknowledgment of Koch’s perceived wan response to the AIDS crisis is balanced with the touting of his landmark gay-rights bill.
Larger than life in archival footage and even the near-present (the bulk of new material seems to have been shot when he was 85), the mayor comes across as genial but practiced sitting down for questions. Much better are the scenes of Koch unplugged. There’s a great Yom Kippur argument with his unintimidated family, who try to convince the sometimes-late-in-life right-winger he shouldn’t be against the “Ground Zero mosque.” Director Neil Barsky saves his biggest coup for the end, as the mayor wanders through New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2010 election-night victory party, offering compliments and barbs. The irony of Koch is that, with a subject who always prided himself on saying what he meant, it’s rarely off-the-cuff.