And he died in February, at age 88, just before Neil Barsky’s entertaining, image-burnishing documentary appreciation for his career, “Koch,” opened.
“How’m I doing?” he asked constituents during his first mayoral campaign, and all through his tenure in office (1978-1989). “Koch” does a pretty good job of answering that question that.
Non-New Yorkers won’t remember that he was a three-term Congressman and a World War II combat vet. And even New Yorkers, with no sense of history, might have forgotten what he did to make the city livable and worth visiting by tourists, two features it had lost by the middle of the ‘70s.
Urban blight, crime, and a Times Square that was only a “Crossroads of the World” for those who liked porn movies, panhandlers and peep shows – oh, and the city was on the verge of bankruptcy – those were the challenges that faced the underdog who upset Mario Cuomo and became mayor in 1978.
Koch went to Congress, got loan guarantees and set an example by picking a fight with the powerful Transit Workers union. He pressed for commercial redevelopment of Times Square, and eventually engineered a housing boom that made the city affordable and livable for millions.
“We were worth saving,” Koch declares, cruising through town in a limo, an in-demand public speaker and power-broker, even in his last years. Barsky captures the man’s wheeling and dealing, right to the end, the pathological hand-shaker, the funny laugh that never left him.
The Koch strategy, to “get them to follow you,” you “have to be bigger than life.” And he was, a TV camera hog and outspoken ham – upending expectations and tweaking his core constituencies, right to the end.
But, as Barsky’s film points out, a Koch story will always be “A Tale of Two Cities.” He didn’t hesitate to betray those who got him elected, had a tendency to only consider his own point of view and got his back up any time he was confronted with alternative realities.
Barsky opens the film with an acrimonious city government debate, just a couple of years ago, over whether to re-name the Queensboro Bridge after Koch. Hard feelings lingered long after he was chased from office, his administration accused of cozying up to power brokers who then turned corrupt.
The film uses extensive news footage from the pre-Koch era onward to sharpen the focus of where New York stood at the beginning of his tenure, and at the end of it. It’s always amusing to hear pundits wax nostalgic for “the old 42nd Street and Times Square,” dens of sin though they were. They prefer the dangerous, dirty dens of sin to the Disney-fied Times Square of today. The millions who returned to Broadway post-Koch plainly prefer The Disney Version.
Koch himself, his trusted colleagues and a few of his more forgiving political foes speak on camera (not Mario Cuomo, not Rudolph Giuliani). The mayor acknowledges some mistakes, his confrontational bluntness with his black constituents, and bristles at others — his willful ignoring of the AIDS crisis, which his critics charge was driven by his own fears of being “outed.”
He kept his sexuality secret, and kept stirring things up, right to the end, as the film points out. The Jewish Koch chose a protestant cemetery and set up his tombstone (as the film shows) months before he died.
The film reminds us that as amusing as he could be, he wasn’t the dazzling wit history packaged him as. “Relevant” is how he wanted to be remembered. And before he died, he got a filmmaker to remind us of exactly that.
Maybe his timing was on the mark, after all.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with a scattering of profanity
Cast: Ed Koch, Michael Bloomberg, Christine Quinn, Charles Rangel
Credits: Written and directed by Neil Barsky. A Zeitgeist release.
Running time: 1:40