by George Sax
If Ed Koch were to ask you, “How’m I doin’?,” his trademark public query, you could accurately tell him he’s doing pretty well. After all, how many former New York City mayors are the subject of a docu-biopic in national distribution? The very fact that Neil Barsky’s Koch is opening this week in Buffalo and other US locales is testimony to its subject’s high profile over the last 35 years. His only challenger for such prominence is another Big Apple chief exec, Rudy Giuliani, and he’s far more provocative and disliked.
Barsky’s movie is only the culmination of a nearly quarter-century-long post-mayoral career, during which Koch acquired money and an improved public image. The acrimonies and scandals of his three office terms faded in memory. So Koch is doing okay. Of course, he died several days before he was to attend the movie’s premiere a few weeks ago, but you can’t have everything.
Some people have expressed surprise that Koch, made with its subject’s enthusiastic cooperation, isn’t a whitewash. It isn’t, but it doesn’t offer much real scrutiny of Koch and his times. Political history and analysis are difficult to handle in movies. Barsky’s film moves along efficiently and divertingly, but it provides only a sketchy, arbitrarily balanced sense of Koch’s political career. An important example of its deficiency is the treatment of the mayor’s response to the AIDS crisis. Barsky’s emphasis is on the widespread accusation that Koch was a closeted gay who was afraid to do more for fear of outing himself, but he doesn’t really describe that contested response. He does a little better with Koch’s increasing estrangement from New York’s black population.
But where Koch succeeds best is in its engaging and persuasive portrait of the mayor’s political acumen and his personality. Koch makes it adequately clear that along with the brash but needy and theatrical performer was an astute political leader, at least within New York City. He was a little like Saul Steinberg’s famous Manhattan-centric rendering of a US map.
In one of several interesting and apparently candid remarks to Barsky, Koch says, “You can never get people to follow unless you’re bigger than life.” Whether for good or ill—and Barsky clearly gives him the benefit of the doubt—he was that a lot of the time.
Watch the trailer for Koch
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