One of New York City’s most controversial figures, former mayor Ed Koch has been portrayed by the media as a hero, a deeply bigoted and closeted fraud, as well as, most believably, some irresolvable mixture of the two. While Koch is largely credited with stirring the Big Apple out of a major fiscal disaster with potentially global reverberations, as well as successfully staring down an infamous subway strike in 1980, he’s also known for what could be politely characterized as a shockingly blunt failure of empathy for folks who weren’t straight or white. Koch controversially closed Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital despite campaigning on its preservation, citing that he refused to spend money on a mere “symbol.” The former mayor also shared Ronald Reagan’s general indifference to the mass proliferation of the AIDS epidemic, and eventually suffered a humiliating political fall from grace as his third term became mired in a huge municipal corruption scandal. Once known as “America’s mayor,” Koch would appear to embody just about all of this country’s evils and hypocrisies as well as its potentialities for admittedly remarkable reinvention.
While a conventional rise-fall-rise story fashioned from a traditional alternation of archive footage and talking-head interviews, Koch is nonetheless fascinating because director Neil Barsky explicitly understands that Koch’s considerable achievements and deplorable embarrassments sprang from precisely the same element of his personality: that larger-than-life, take-no-prisoners bullheadedness that refuses to relent to anyone for any reason. Barsky is surprisingly unsentimental about Koch’s rehabilitation of New York City in the late 1970s throughout the 1980s, as you’re allowed to grasp, from the intimate snatches of vérité footage of his first campaign, that Koch saw Gerald Ford’s infamous refusal to bail the city out as potentially the largest scale dare of his life—an epic pissing contest. We’re allowed to hypothesize that Koch probably saw little difference between jump-starting a landmark housing renewal initiative and closing a beloved hospital down: Both were titanic tests of his will, and the effect these acts potentially had on his constituency seems to be seen by the mayor as a mere abstraction. This was a man who craved action regardless of cost (and for that, Koch, like Lincoln, could be taken as a reaction to a certain contemporary politician whose perceived poise and inaction has disappointed certain groups).
But Barsky’s obvious admiration eventually causes some problems. The film naïvely fails to challenge Koch’s insistence that he had nothing to do with the infamous city-wide corruption scandal that eventually took him out of office, which is particularly galling when one considers the mayor’s documented willingness to make whichever bedfellows he deemed necessary to win an election. And while Koch’s resuscitation of New York City was remarkable, the gentrification this paved the way for is pointedly unacknowledged. A brisk 95 minutes, Koch is almost too fleet, as it confidently breezes through troubling points in the politician’s career (such as his aforementioned non-reaction to the AIDS epidemic, which the film admittedly acknowledges as potentially rooted in rumors of Koch’s own homosexuality) while lingering on the obvious victories. Barsky is, refreshingly, aware of how a great and terribly troubling person can reside in the same body, but his occasional eagerness to appoint himself as his subject’s latest press agent is dubious.