Towards the end of Koch, the new documentary on New York’s eponymous former mayor, journalist-cum-filmmaker Neil Barsky captures a particularly affecting moment. It is 2010, and a group of politicos are leaving Governor Andrew Cuomo’s victory party. As they gather outside the elevator, one of Cuomo’s aides remarks that he is excited to go home and see his daughter. “Some things are more important than politics,” he says to some murmurs of agreement. The camera cuts to the 86-year-old Koch; he leans against a table, unresponsive, and stares at the floor. We then see Koch return alone to his apartment. The elevator ride is quiet, void of Koch’s characteristic cheeky humor. Koch unlocks his door and goes inside as we are left alone in the dimly lit hallway.
Koch is ostensibly about Ed Koch the political figure. The film traces the peaks and valleys of his three-term mayoral career in New York City from 1977 to 1989. But as evidenced by the scene above and others like it, Koch is also the story of Koch the man. What we ultimately learn is that the gap between Koch the politico and Koch the person isn’t all that wide. For Ed Koch, his personal life and his political life were one and the same. Throughout the documentary, Koch appears at his happiest when he is in the public eye, conversing with the people of New York. Barsky repeatedly shows footage of Koch standing on New York streets, shaking hands and asking his catchphrase, “How’m I doing?”—something he asked until his recent passing, which happened to coincide with the release of his documentary. Rather than settling down or moving out of the spotlight, Koch was always seeking affirmation and political relevance.
The film reinforces Koch’s station as New York’s quintessential mayor. Save a brief summary of Koch’s youth halfway into the documentary, Barsky skips Koch’s childhood, World War II service, and early days in Congress, choosing instead to begin with the contentious mayoral election of 1977. The footage from that summer—which included the blackout, the Son of Sam terrorizing the city, and the arson that plagued the Bronx—were particularly colorful, and, like the rest of the film, are sure to pique the interest of anyone interested in New York’s rich history.
From ’77 onward, Barsky weaves together present day scenes, copious archival footage, and a distinguished cast of commenters. The film dives deep into the social and economic issues that plagued the late ‘70s and ‘80s, including the city’s brush with bankruptcy; the MTA strike of 1980; the housing and AIDS crisis in the ‘80s; and mounting racial tensions following the shooting of Yusef Hawkins in 1989. The film praises Koch’s achievements regarding these issues (a particularly appreciative commenter calls his transformative housing initiative “better than the Pyramids”). Barsky also illuminates Koch’s showboating personality, from his 1983 appearance on SNL to his shutting up hecklers on the street.
Koch’s charisma and brash humor weren’t always appreciated – his obstinacy often left him with more than a few enemies. Barsky balances Koch’s achievements with his flaws, including his poor handling of the AIDS crisis and his rocky relationship with the black community, especially following his closing Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in 1980. But in spite of the bad blood Koch accrued during his lengthy mayoral career, it’s ultimately Koch who has the last word. Since the documentary gives Koch so much camera time, it’s hard for it to not be at least a little bit swayed toward the former mayor. But Koch’s interviews help the film more than they hurt it; it’s Koch’s jocularity and salty mouth (upon being asked about his sexuality, a question he was often probed about, he replies frankly: “it’s none of your fucking business”) that make the film so accessible and, indeed, laugh out loud funny. Although some poignant moments pervade, such as the one on the eve of Cuomo’s election, Koch ultimately came out the victor as New York’s most ludicrously loud-mouthed cheerleader. In the film’s opening scene, Koch describes flying back home to New York. “I saw New York below the plane,” he says proudly, “and it all belongs to me.” Koch may not have had a wife or children to return home to at the end of the night, but he always had New York.