I’m “biast” (pro): who isn’t fascinated by Ed Koch?
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Whether you loved Ed Koch, mayor of New York City from 1978 through 1989, or hated him — there seemed to be little middle ground — you simply couldn’t avoid him during that decade, and even to this day, he remains a public figure in the city with a presence scaled way beyond any actual remaining influence. He reviews movies on local media! He’s on Twitter! The Queensboro Bridge has been renamed the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge! (A cheat sheet for my U.K. readers: London mayor Boris Johnson wishes he was this outrageous, and would surely love to endure as an urban fixture for a quarter of a century after he leaves office.)
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Neil Barsky makes his feature documentary debut here with a film that, astonishingly, might possibly please everyone, regardless of their opinion of Koch. With great good humor — including that of Koch himself, who appears to have cooperated fully in the production — and a solid, old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness, Barsky paints a warts-and-all portrait of Koch that is historically compelling, journalistically rigorous, and bursting with Essence of Koch, whom one interviewee here describes, not unkindly, as “haunted and damned by one helluva personality.”
Perhaps the remarkable thing about Koch is how generous it manages to be without losing its cool, impartial perspective on just how controversial Koch was in almost every aspect of his mayorship. Possibly no one could have taken the reins of a city that was, in 1978, falling apart — on the brink of bankruptcy, with crime out of control — and made the tough decisions that got it back on track without incurring some wrath… and Koch came under attack from all quarters as racist, illiberal, and generally uncaring, accusations Barsky presents without editorial commentary on either their truth or unfairness.
Tucked in among all the Koch-ness is, almost accidentally, an absorbing portrait of America’s signature city at its most trying time (at least in living memory), from the reign of terror of the serial killer Son of Sam and the July 1977 blackout that sparked “anarchy” to the historic and lengthy 1980 transit strike to the AIDS epidemic that ravaged the city and ignited the gay community’s anger at Koch’s silence on his own (presumed) homosexuality to rising racial animosity in the late 80s. The abundance of vintage footage of New York during the era is an especial treat for anyone who loves the city.
Here’s a comparison for everyone who remembers the era: This film is like something Jimmy Breslin would have written, full of heart, powerfully informed, unselfish yet unhesitatant about flinging barbs where they deserve to hit. Good stuff. Good New York stuff.