Neil Barsky’s "Koch" Keeps It Light

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 24, 2013

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Former New York City mayor Ed Koch in "Koch."

Here’s to the loudmouth mayor of New York City, who served three terms and died at the age of 88 just a few days before this movie was released in The Big Apple this past February. Ed Koch was a consummate ham and a bit of scoundrel. Neil Barsky’s documentary, Koch, tries to pay tribute to both. 

It gets the first part right.

“How’m I doin?” Koch always asked constituents, but he never seemed particularly interested in hearing an answer. He was a tough guy who shot his mouth off an awful lot, symbolizing 1980s New York City for this Boston kid who dreamed of someday living in a place where if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere (though I must admit I sometimes mistook Ed Koch for Frank Perdue during the commercials on WPIX while spending summers at my grandfather’s house in Schenectady).

Koch walked into a nightmare, elected when the city was bankrupt, and I must admit a weird fondness for those graffiti-strewn subway trains and quasi-apocalyptic vistas of urban blight. That’s what always felt like New York to me. Barsky’s movie makes a considerable case for Koch masterminding the development deals which, in the past couple decades, turned Times Square into the world’s largest theme park for tourists. There’s even a sequence when the former mayor glides through what has now become a neon Applebee’s wasteland in a limo, somberly acknowledging: “I’ve never been to Red Lobster.”

Barsky is a former journalist, so he hits enough points to make the movie work and only occasionally holds his subject’s feet to the fire. Most of the time, Koch is content to present Da Mayor as a doddering, always-hilarious old fogey who loves the camera. The entire movie is framed around re-naming the Queensboro Bridge in his honor, and boy howdy, does Ed enjoy that.

If you happen to be black or queer, this sort of hagiography will probably just be appalling. Skirting issues of his sexuality with a very polite “none of your fucking business,” Koch avoids talking about the AIDS crisis, racial unrest or really anything that made New York New York during his reign in the 1980s. Although, up until the end, he did still love to make fun of the Cuomos.

Koch is a glossy overview of a time and a place that’s probably unique in American culture, one that captured this boy’s imagination.

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