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Entries in Koch [2012] (1)

Wednesday
Mar272013

Koch (2012)

Mayor May Not Be

Until yesterday, my knowledge of Ed Koch was limited to Steve Park's two-second impersonation of him in Do the Right Thing. New York politics isn't my passion, so maybe I'm not qualified to review Koch, Neil Barsky's profile of the divisive, three-term New York City mayor. Or maybe that makes me ultra-qualified to write about it--from a pure infotainment angle, and free of bias or editorial qualms. In my (admittedly limited) experience, that's a rare treat for a documentary. So, yes, let's start there.

Weaving together a hefty amount of stock footage with talking-head interviews, Barsky makes a compelling case for destiny: Is it a coincidence that the Big Apple was run by such a big, weird personality as Koch during one of its most transformative decades? Dishevelled and nasal-voiced, the outspoken World War II vet was perhaps one of the least polished political candidates in history. Just as early campaign footage shows him greeting commuters and asking them, "How'm I doing?", Barsky argues that America was asking itself this question between 1978 and 1989, as it reconsidered hot-button issues such as racism, corruption, homophobia, AIDS, and blight.

Koch made a name for himself as a not-quite-party-line liberal who didn't fare that well in elections. In 1977, however, the quasi social reformer made two key decisions that put him over the top in a crowded mayoral race: speaking out against a municipality that allowed rioting during a city-wide blackout, and crawling (figuratively) into bed with corrupt king-maker Meade Esposito. Offering a "Voice of the People" narrative, and bulldozing the competition with newfound (admittedly suspect) political influence, Koch's victory unleashed an aggressively opinionated fame-hound on the city who became as ubiquitous as he was divisive.

Koch the movie is a lot like Koch the man: alternately exuberant and guarded, with a sense of itself that may or may not be defensible as "honest".* Just as Koch waved off critics--or, more often than not, embarrassed them into submission during frequent public attacks--so, too, does the film offer up meek criticisms that are ultimately drowned out by interviews with a jovial, reflective eighty-seven-year-old man and, later, by somber footage of that same man forced to stand just to the left of the spotlight he so loved.

It's tempting to call this a bias on Barsky's part, but I'm not so sure. It may be that the only version of Koch anyone ever knew was the face he presented to the public--which, given his superheroic ability to rationalize both sides of any given position--could be a hard one to remember. Many have accused Koch of not doing anything substantive about the budding AIDS crisis (a double-whammy, considering the decades-long rumors of his homosexuality), and of pandering to white voters while ignoring or castigating minorities. But to watch Koch's matter-of-fact explanations of his stances is to instantly understand to his side, if not to warm to it. Confronted by an outraged black community over the shuttering of a famous, failing Harlem hospital, the mayor said, in effect, that he wasn't going to waste nine million dollars of taxpayer money on sentimentality. 

That said, one of the most damning critiques Koch's character comes from Calvin O. Butts, who maintains that Koch wasn't a racist, he was an opportunist--which made matters far worse. Whether or not Koch was conscious of his win-at-all-costs approach to governance, he attracted all manner of nefarious characters to his administration. Many of them eventually went away, thanks in large part to presiding US Attorney (and future NYC mayor), Rudy Giuliani.

Koch is full of great little connections like that. Barsky teases us by cutting from historical cliffhangers to present-day episodes involving the mayor's contentious relationship with rivals-turned-allies-turned rivals Mario and Andrew Cuomo, and a perhaps unsurprisingly difficult bid to have a bridge named after himself. The result is a roller coaster of great stories and greater personalities that add up to one impossibly full life.

But what kind of life was it? Koch's guardedness on the gay issue seems to have extended to every other facet of his personal life--and to the emotions surrounding his public one. In fleeting moments of introspection, we realize that Koch is, in the strictest sense, a documentary. The subject allowed Barsky and his crew unfettered access to him as a person, but not personally. The distinction is huge, and the result is an engrossing but ultimately frustrating work about a larger-than-life man who may as well have been a figment of America's collective unconscious, hatched by the media and felled by changing times. Maybe he was.

*Again, this is the conclusion Barsky has led me to; I can only imagine how a political junky would view this mostly loving homage.