When former New York Mayor Edward I. Koch died Feb. 1, the inevitable accolades flowed.
He was the “quintessential New Yorker,” the “fighting mayor” and a guy who “told it like it was.”
All true. But a new film directed by former Wall Street Journal reporter Neil Barsky puts it all in context. Nothing could be more timely than this documentary, which traces the life of the Big Town’s 105th mayor, debuting just three weeks after his death at age 88.
“Koch” evokes a flood of memories of the era when the Bronx native ruled over the nation’s premier city from 1978 to 1989. Those years marked a resurgence for New York City from the days of crime and graffiti into a golden era when Wall Street and big business ruled.
But it took work. Only a year before his election, under former Mayor Abe Beam, the city declared bankruptcy. And a famous Daily News headline – “Ford to City: Drop Dead” – summarized where it ranked on the national scale of priorities.
So Koch, then a liberal Democratic congressman from Manhattan, suddenly appeared on the scene. He was colorful, plain-spoken, chock-full of ideas and seemed ready for the times. New York City bought into his charm from a field of seven candidates, and a significant era in the long history of the city had begun.
The film can also be labeled “quintessentially New York” because it rounds up all the major players and issues of the day into a smooth package. We see former State Sen. and Comptroller H. Carl McCall, Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III and a host of former staffers who recall key crises and issues of the day. And the issues were major league – just like New York City itself – AIDS, homelessness, a transit strike and bankruptcy.
While the issues of the day rank as important elements of this film, Koch the man elevates the film into something really special. Koch succeeded by sheer force of his personality. When the transit union paralyzed the city by going on strike in 1980, Koch rallied pedestrians on the Brooklyn Bridge. “We won’t let these bastards bring us to our knees,” he blared over a bullhorn.
And it explores the thorny question – officially unanswered to this day – over whether the bachelor mayor was gay. Though he often squired former Miss America Bess Myerson (some said as a ruse), the question became relevant when he was severely criticized for failing to decisively act on the AIDS epidemic of the day. The haunting images of those who were sick and dying bring home the gravity of the situation.
And it should not be overlooked that Koch was never viewed as a friend of minorities. McCall, who would later be the state’s first black candidate for governor in 2002, called his rejection of a campaign promise to preserve a Harlem hospital as a “real betrayal.”
Koch was ready with his own view. “You think I should give in to symbolism? They didn’t close it out of fear of the black community?” Koch recalled in a recent interview. “I said: That’s no way to be mayor.”
The film is engrossing, captivating and informative as a reflection of the times.
From this view, it would have earned four stars if only it had bothered to devote more than a passing glance to Koch’s ill-fated run for governor in 1982. That’s when he asked why anyone would want to live upstate. He wondered about upstate residents “wasting time in a pickup truck when you have to drive 20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears Roebuck suit.”
It cost him the Executive Mansion. But the filmmakers apparently learned little from his loss of upstate and the chance to be governor with its NYC-centric point of view.
But it’s still well worth the time of any student of politics and those who love everything about New York City. And Koch remains one of those “characters” who make politics interesting, and who will always prove part of Big Apple lore.
“Howm’ I doin’?” Koch used to ask his constituents.
After viewing Barsky’s film, just about everyone will agree he’s still doing just fine.
Director: Neil Barsky
Running time: 95 minutes
Rating: No rating, but PG-13 equivalent for rough language.
The Lowdown: Documentary about the life of Edward I. Koch, the late mayor of New York City.