Those of you outside of New York City who may be wondering, “Why on earth would someone make a documentary about a former mayor of New York City” certainly have no idea who the real Ed Koch was. Mayor Koch was a larger than life, colorful, sometimes polarizing, controversial, good-hearted, quintessential New Yorker, the type of person you would expect to be mayor of the country’s largest city. Before Ed Koch, there had never been a New York City mayor quite like him, a man who seemed very suited for the tough times facing New York City when he arrived in city hall in 1978. The timing seems right to release this excellent documentary on Ed Koch, who recently passed away on February 1st. With a tentative field of mayoral hopefuls vying to be on the ballot for the upcoming election to become New York City’s 109th mayor, none of the candidates have what the 105th mayor of New York City had; none of them are Ed Koch.
Director Neil Barsky’s documentary focuses mostly on Ed Koch’s time as mayor of New York, beginning with the tumultuous primary election in 1977, one in which contained other colorful, larger than life New York political figures. Koch won the primary, narrowly beating his closest competitor, Mario Cuomo, who would later go on to become governor of New York. Interestingly, we see Koch endorsing Andrew Cuomo for governor, which he would later go on to win, then hear Koch call him a schmuck on election night.
“How’m I doing? Victory is mine!”
The former mayor, forever abrasive, is still the same old Ed Koch in the documentary as many New Yorkers remember him as, maybe just a little bit more mellow. As mayor, Koch always seemed to be picking a fight, not letting personal feelings get in the way of doing the smart thing fiscally, which would lead to his contentious relationships with African Americans. Regrets are not something the former mayor admits to having, but he does admit that the closing of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem—a hospital barely operating in the red but the only hospital in the city that would hire Black doctors—was a mistake, especially after promising the community he would keep it open.
Koch became known as a reformist mayor who would quickly turnaround the cash-strapped city into the glorious metropolis it once was and is now. From the seedy bars and adult shops that lined the streets of Times Square to graffiti covered subway cars, Koch made the pitch early in his first term directly to DC lawmakers asking for billions in federal aid. Later on in the documentary we see images of abandoned buildings in the South Bronx (shells really), a common sight if one had the courage or insanity to drive through in the 70’s, to tree lined streets which bare absolutely no resemblance to what the Bronx once was and stood for—a haven for drugs, prostitution, illiteracy, homelessness, all captured in the 2005 book “Ladies And Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning.” Koch is seen as the first mayor to begin the rebuilding process, which he freely admits he was not surprised to see given that his administration laid the foundation for New York City’s recovery, which was then followed by Mayor David Dinkins, to Rudy Giuliani, to Michael Bloomberg.
Koch enjoyed city-wide popularity and became a national figure during the 80’s, including being featured on the cover of Time Magazine, and winning three terms as mayor (1977, 1981, and 1985). However, his legacy would be marred by the middle of his second term. Koch, who never admitted his sexual orientation, would be lambasted by the gay community and for ignoring the AIDs crisis, which Koch fiercely denies doing. Crime levels were years away from reaching the levels they are now, and the number of homeless people, while they never increased in dramatic numbers, were hard to ignore as homeless men, women, and children were evident on the street and in the subways. And today there are a number of African Americans in the city old enough to remember who feel Koch made race relations worse, accusing Koch of lacking empathy with African Americans throughout his 12 years in office.
“No, really. She’s my girlfriend, for real.”
Koch includes a number of reporters, political leaders, and former aides to Ed Koch who offer biting criticism (one former adviser mentions how to this day he wants to kill his old boss for disparaging remarks Koch made about Upstate New York during his failed 1982 run for governor), but in fairness give the Koch administration credit for turning around the city that was close to being ruined fiscally. Though hard feelings still exist over Koch’s handling of matters of race, the assessments being made are measured, even affectionate at times.
Until the end, Ed Koch still enjoyed campaigning (the first shots from the documentary are of Koch campaigning for a candidate in Brooklyn for the New York State Assembly), and was still a much sought-after endorsement by both Republicans and Democrats (Koch would always say proudly he was a liberal with sanity). He still asked New Yorkers , “How’m I doing?” a saying he made famous as he ran for mayor in 1977, and has become a fixture in New York City. A commentator, columnist, even a movie reviewer (how many former mayors can you name that have join the ranks of us movie critics), Ed Koch loved his city and the city, for the most part, loved him.
Those who are fascinated with New York City, and the characters and personalities who make it the uniquely unique city it is need not look any further than this documentary. Ed Koch was and always has been New York’s most loyal cheerleader, especially at a time when New Yorkers weren’t especially proud of their city. This is a fascinating account from one of the most tumultuous times in the history of New York City, and Ed Koch was the right person for the right job at the right time.
Outside of New York, you may feel lost when the film goes in detail, but never dwells too much, on each negative or positive milestone of the Koch administration. The bribery scandals that occurred during Koch’s third term, while fascinating, won’t resonate nationally with viewers nearly as much as do the matters of race and the AIDs issue. You never get the feeling the film was made strictly for a New York audience. It’s a documentary on a politician whom many loved and many hated, but who did his best until he was voted out. Koch could be about any politician, but this stellar documentary is about the one politician who stands above them all.
Take a Drink: whenever Ed Koch curses out a politician behind their back.
Take a Drink: when you see Ed Koch politely, amusingly, but with a bit of a dismissive tone, say thank you to someone who remembers him but has no idea who that person is.
Do a Shot: during the last shot of the film in which, in the back of his limo while riding over the Ed Koch Memorial Bridge, the former mayor proudly says of his predecessor,“I never did a fucking thing for Abe Beam!”