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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Koch (review)

Koch green light Ed Koch Bess Myerson

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.

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Koch (2013)
US/Can release: Feb 1 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated HHD: how’s he doin’?
MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Kathy_A

    I saw that Ric Burns is adding an episode to his New York documentary miniseries for broadcast sometime this year. I haven’t seen the full series in a while, so I don’t remember how he addressed the 1970s-80s era, but it’ll be interesting to rewatch it and see!

  • Tonio Kruger

    Poor Koch. All that controversy and in the end, it was Rudy Guiliani, not Koch, who ultimately got credit for the big New York City turnaround. Today Koch is primarily known by most non-New Yorkers for that silly catchphrase “How am I doing?” and for being the not so secret inspiration for the mayor in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities.

    Then again no one seems to be mentioning Dinkins nowadays and time will tell whether the currrent NYC mayor will end up having the same rep as Koch or worse.

  • judy

    Not to be trollish – but does anyone outside New York even care or know, who this guy is?

  • Looking forward to this one.  Ed Koch is one of those legendary figures of New York like Al Smith who will never fade away from NYC.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Well, as a Los Angeleno transplanted to Colorado… *raises hand*

  • I knew who he was even before I moved to NYC — heck, even before I moved to America.

    It seems to me that New York City mayors, at least in recent times, have tended to be nationally-known figures as well. I imagine someone who’d been mayor of NYC for eleven years in the not-too-distant past would still have name recognition with a lot of people.

    As for “caring” who he is — it’s the film’s job to make you care, isn’t it? A good documentary makes you care about something you didn’t think you’d ever be interested in.

  • It seems to me that New York City mayors, at least in recent times, have tended to be nationally-known figures as well.

    I don’t think it’s stretching too much to make that internationally-known.

  • I_Sell_Books

    Aw, have you seen this morning’s news?

  • MisterAntrobus

     Of course. He was even in The Muppets Take Manhattan!

  • LaSargenta

    When he was elected, I heard quite a bit about him in San Francisco. Much was made in other parts of the country for the fact he was (a) single (so swarming rumors that he might be *gasp* really gay) and (b) whether he might not move into the Mayor’s mansion, thereby saving the government money. Plus, NYC was famously in horrible shape and he was going to be doing all the heavy lifting.

    Yeah, I later lived in NYC, even when he was still mayor, but I had heard quite a bit about him before. And everyone likes learning about a character…he was that!

  • LaSargenta

    It was in my morning Crain’s e-mail…I forwarded it to MAJ. Now that I’m not standing on a lurching bus, I can post this here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/02/nyregion/edward-i-koch-ex-mayor-of-new-york-dies.html?_r=0

  • I never received that…

  • I heard the news. Just the sort of stunt Koch would pull, dying on the very day his doc opens, just to focus more attention on it. :->

  • LaSargenta

    It was from my work BB. Maybe you erased it if you didn’t recognize the e-ddress. Nvrmnd. You got it now. 

  • judy

    Well, thank-you – all – for answering my potentially impertinent question! I live in Canada and had not heard of Koch, but from your collective responses I am intrigued. :)

  • Tonio Kruger

    Well, I have obviously heard of him and the closest I ever got to NYC was when I lived in Michigan. I currently live in Texas now but we still get New York papers down here. Plus, of course there’s the Internet…

  • Tonio Kruger

    Well, if he was in a Muppet movie, that settles it. ;-)

  • judy


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