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‘Koch’ has a great feel for the ’80s, but slacks off in the present day

‘Koch’ has a great feel for the ’80s, but slacks off in the present day

koch documentary

Directed by Neil Barsky
USA, 2013

The narrative often sold to non-New Yorkers is that New York City in the 1980s was a cesspool, and then Rudy Giuliani came along in the 1990s to clean it up. Like most political narratives, it’s a little loose with the facts. Edward Koch, the mayor of New York in the ‘80s, surely wanted to clean up the city as well, but he also had his own problems to deal with. Neil Barsky’s new documentary Koch tells the story of that era in exacting detail, from Koch’s election in 1977 to his departure from the office in 1989.

The film begins in the present day, with the city council bitterly divided over whether or not it should name the Queensboro bridge after Koch. Barsky then flashes back to Koch’s first mayoral election, in which the former congressman first displayed the blunt brashness that would define him in Gracie Mansion. The cuts back and forth between Koch then and Koch now are the film’s biggest weakness. Koch lived an active life right until the end – including a passion for writing film criticism – but in the present day he has no conflicts as dramatic as when he was mayor. Every time the film shifts to the present day audiences will clamor for it to go back to the contentious 1980s, when Koch masterminded the rebuilding of Times Square and massive housing construction in the Bronx, but also was a part of the biggest municipal scandal in the city’s history.

Barsky (Knuckleball!) does a fine job connecting past and present with one theme: Koch’s outsized personality was both perfect for New York politics, and a perfect disaster. While some in New York have claimed Koch to be biased in favor of its subject, it’s clear that Barsky understands that Koch had a great many self-inflicted wounds. The same attitude that helped him bruise his way through the city’s financial crisis of the late 1970s enraged the city’s black community all throughout the 1980s, as Al Sharpton had his career defined by Koch’s opposition to him. As the AIDS virus raged, Koch’s confrontational nature turned the famed gay advocacy group ACT-UP against him, even though Koch himself was rumored to be gay, and his first election was plagued by anonymous signs urging voters to “Vote for [Mario] Cuomo, Not the Homo.” (Koch refused to discuss his sexuality one way or the other, even unto death.)

After it finishes with Koch’s time as mayor, Barsky still has the movie’s only truly powerful scene in the present day to show: Election Night 2010, when Mario Cuomo’s son Andrew became governor of New York. Despite the fact that Koch endorsed Andrew Cuomo, there’s no question that he seems defeated one final time by his old enemy, with nothing left to do but trudge home to his Washington Square apartment. Another era might have allowed Koch to marry and adopt, sending his lifelong feud with the Cuomo family onto the next generation instead of conceding it. But this film succeeds most when it demonstrates that Koch could only try his best within the era that he had.

-Mark Young