All due respect to the former mayor of New York, but when the DVD screener of “Koch,” the documentary on NYC’s polarizing and transformational political figure, turned up on my doorstep I couldn’t help but think back to good old Video Shmideo in Victoria Court, and their section “Newly Dead.” Mr. Koch died only three weeks ago, so this is either amazing (or the worst) timing or the distributor Zeitgeist Films is striking while the street vendor’s pretzel is hot.
Ed Koch started life as a reformer on several difficult issues, including sodomy, in the early ’60s. He didn’t do well, but then he went on to win a seat in state legislature. As the doc opens, he is campaigning for mayor of New York in 1977, going up against other candidates like Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, speaking to potential voters as they stream out of the subway, asking “How am I doing?” and holding up a placard, all black Helvetica font on white, which seems just so NYC and so mid-’70s.
At the time, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, filled with sleaze and crime, and terrorized by the Son of Sam shootings.
“Koch” details how the new mayor turned around the city and tried to do right by everybody, while never being afraid of making enemies along the way. He stood up to the transit worker unions and what he saw as a symbolic-but-useless hospital for African-Americans. This latter decision he regretted, but not too much.
Neil Barsky’s doc presents an affectionate portrait of the former mayor without being slavish. He gives ample evidence of why some New Yorkers disliked Mr. Koch, especially African-Americans and the gay community, and never tweaks the footage to his advantage. Mr. Koch wouldn’t want it that way anyway, as he is one of those politicians who both understood the theatricality of what he did and the import behind it. He could disagree with you on issues, yet still throw in his support. One comes out of “Koch” not necessarily with the idea that Mr. Koch should have won his fourth term instead of David Dinkins, but — and this is for those not interested in New York politics — but that there should be more politicians like Mr. Koch, regardless of political affiliation.
Shot near the end of 2010 — when Mr. Koch’s name was memorialized on the Queensboro Bridge — the film shows a still active and smart man reaching 86 years old who is not afraid of dying. “I believe in God and the afterlife,” he says. “And I expect to be rewarded.” Even in death, which he was preparing for, he didn’t mind ruffling a few feathers, choosing the WASP-ish Trinity Cemetery over the less-trafficked Jewish ones. He has written his own epitaph and his headstone already waits.
His ego is his character, but it also led to his eventual downfall in 1989, although he goes out gracefully. His sexual orientation, even in the current interviews, is “none of your (expletive) business.” And the film is filled with characters we all know too well: Rev. Al Sharpton, Rudy Guiliani (who exposed Koch-tied corruption and eventually rode it into office), the bland current Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the father-son opponents to Mr. Koch of Mario and Andrew Cuomo.
“Koch” is fair to its subject and in the end also a portrait of one of America’s greatest cities, which he embodied. He’d probably love that last sentiment, too.
Length: 100 minutes
Rating: Not rated
Playing at: Plaza de Oro