Bright Life, Big City

Koch: History, Controversy, and New York City



"HERE WAS A GUY who really represented the rough and tumble of New York. And he was just haunted and damned by one hell of a personality." So says Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, at the outset of Koch. Neil Barsky's documentary about the man who served as New York City's mayor from 1978 to 1989 focuses on that era, crafting not only a portrait of Ed Koch, but also—as if the two can be separated—of New York during some of its most tumultuous years.

As America's greatest city, New York's had few mayors as influential, well known, and controversial as Koch (though Michael Bloomberg's currently making a pretty good go of it). His public life intersected with those of Rudy Giuliani, Mario Cuomo, Ronald Reagan, and Eddie Murphy; his death, earlier this month, made headlines in a way few mayors' ever will. (Sorry, Charlie.) Which is probably how Koch would have wanted it. "It's theatrics!" Koch explains at one point in Barsky's film. He's talking about politics, but also his bigger-than-life persona. "Everybody has a role."

The most welcome thing about Koch is that Barsky, as charmed as he is by the man, doesn't shy away from the failures of the mayor. From Koch's shaky race relations to his inaction during the AIDS crisis, from corruption scandals to the repercussions of his presumed closeted homosexuality, Koch illustrates the good and the bad with copious amounts of archival footage and 20/20 hindsight. There are plenty of significant moments here, not to mention a few surreal ones (like Koch visiting his own grave, reading aloud his self-written epitaph), and if there's fault to be found, it's that too many chunks of Koch's tenure deserve documentaries of their own. At less than two hours, Koch goes by at a too-fast pace—a gripping, affecting story of both a likeable, flawed man and his loveable, broken city.


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