Talk about timing. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Neil Barsky’s cinematic debut, “Koch,” had its first screening Feb. 1, the Friday the irrepressible and controversial Ed Koch, who ruled New York in the 1970s and 1980s, died. Koch – resolutely single, endlessly quotable and helplessly flamboyant – was 88. He seemed immortal. Barsky’s affectionate but critical portrait suggests why.
Set against the backdrop of a city on the brink of bankruptcy, hobbled by strikes, crime and AIDS, Barsky’s documentary about the storied New York mayor also includes interviews with a relatively subdued Koch at 86. In addition, Koch is shown interacting with family members, on period video clips and, toward the end, giving his political blessing to New York’s current governor Andrew Cuomo, the son of Mario Cuomo, whom Koch beat in a nasty mayoral primary in 1977. (Five years later, Cuomo turned the tables on Koch in a gubernatorial race.)
Barsky’s well-edited movie documents an ego-driven, emotionally needy man who zealously guarded his privacy, even when loosening that guard might have gained him political capital. In the late ’80s, the film implies, Koch lost the city’s gay constituency when he failed to address whether he was gay. The rumor that he was dogged him throughout his political career despite “dating” the likes of Bess Myerson, the former Miss America whom Koch squired nonstop during his first mayoral run. Barsky’s film suggests Koch used Myerson as a (willing) prop.
Asked whether he was gay, Koch first argues against the very validity of the question, then ends up telling Barsky, “none of your (expletive) business.” Koch talked salty and waxed theatrical indeed.
A relentless self-promoter with a wicked sense of humor, he often seemed as outsized as the city he ruled. “This belongs to me,” Koch says of New York at the beginning of the film. “Thank you, God.”
Barsky doesn’t sugarcoat Koch. He faults him for shutting down the Harlem institution Sydenham Hospital, an action that led to charges of racial bias. (Koch in retrospect said that was a bad decision.) Late in his career, a scandal in the city’s parking violations bureau threatened to topple his administration, and throughout his three terms, charges of political cronyism dogged Koch.
At the same time, Barsky suggests, the persuasive and nimble Koch brought a sense of pride back to a city that in 1977 was reeling from the Son of Sam murders, near-bankruptcy and a massive blackout. By the time David Dinkins beat the folksy, gregarious Koch – who was seeking a fourth term – in 1989 to become New York’s first black mayor, Koch presided over a city with improved housing (including a massive rehabilitation of the South Bronx), reduced crime, greater fiscal stability, and a Times Square starting to morph from sleaze central to tourist magnet.
In the late ’80s, Barsky shows how Koch slowed down, largely due to the AIDS crisis and a Parking Violations Bureau scandal that encompassed a suicide and the conviction of various party powers. Heart problems didn’t help. But by that time, Koch had become as much celebrity as politician.
Barsky, a 1981 Oberlin College graduate, frames his film nicely, opening with the announcement of a proposed renaming of the Queensboro Bridge connecting Long Island City to Manhattan to the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. He closes with a happy, gratified Koch at the renaming ceremony, and then follows Koch as he closes the door to his rent-controlled apartment.
Despite his hyperbolic image and high public profile, Koch remained largely solitary. “How’m I doin’?” a request he often voiced in public, was more trademark than question.
WHAT: Koch, a film by Neil Barsky
WHEN: Opens Friday, Feb. 22
WHERE: Cedar Lee Theatre, 2163 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights