The mayor as movie star: The spotlight loved Ed Koch

From Neil Barsky’s documentary: Ed Koch in the office of his campaign manager David Garth in September 1977.
From Neil Barsky’s documentary: Ed Koch in the office of his campaign manager David Garth in September 1977.
The New York Post via Zeitgeist Films

Ed Koch, who died in February, is an unlikely movie star. That’s OK, since he was an unlikely political star. That didn’t keep the people of New York from electing as their mayor this bald, bullying, squawky man no fewer than three times; and in Neil Barsky’s documentary, “Koch,” he has a born leading man’s command of the screen.

He also had a leading man’s ego. The movie opens with Koch recalling his response whenever he’d fly back to Gotham. “There was the city of New York laid out before me. And I thought to myself, this belongs to me.” The point of Koch’s trademark question, “How’m I doin’?,” was that the emphasis never was on “how” or “doin’,” but always “I.” If ever a man had parents give him the right middle initial, it was Edward I. Koch. They gave him the right last name, too. It was a surname made for headlines (especially on the front page of The New York Post): short, catchy, abrupt.

The documentary nicely mixes vintage news footage and photographs, talking-head interviews with journalists and Koch associates, and lots (and lots) of Koch. He sits in the back of a limo and pontificates. He makes himself breakfast in his apartment. He celebrates the end of Yom Kippur at his sister’s house, in Scarsdale. He’s feted at Gracie Mansion, the New York mayor’s residence, on the occasion of the renaming of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. He visits his gravesite and, the stone already in place, reads aloud his epitaph. He clumps around a Democratic Party election night gathering in 2010, mouthing off to the camera about just-elected Governor Andrew Cuomo (“a schmuck”) and victorious US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (“a loser”). This is a man who was not just abrasive but proudly so. At times, he sounds nearly as graceless as another relic of ’80s New York, Donald Trump.

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Koch was elected mayor in 1977, after a notably unpleasant primary race with Andrew Cuomo’s father, Mario. “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo” read anonymous signs. Somewhat grumpily, if quite understandably, Koch declines to address the issue of his sexual orientation. Barsky’s willingness to raise the question is a sign of how “Koch,” for all that it’s a valentine to its subject, is far from being a whitewash. To say that Koch played the race card wouldn’t be quite fair. But as the film makes plain, he definitely didn’t play the tolerance card. “He’s worse than a racist,” says a Harlem minister, more in sorrow than in anger. “He’s an opportunist.” There are equally harsh comments from the gay community about what they see as Koch’s inadequate response to AIDS during his time in office.

Various career milestones are covered: Koch’s starting out in politics as a reformer in Greenwich Village; his triumphant handling of a 1980 transit strike; his loss of the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Mario Cuomo two years later; the eruption of political scandals in his administration at the start of his third term; how David Dinkins denied him a fourth term, in 1989. The point is also made, and persuasively, that Koch’s greatest legacy — and one that’s sadly underappreciated — is how much new residential housing he got built.

Ultimately, though, those are matters for history, and what “Koch” is a character study. People talk about Ed Koch as being the quintessential New Yorker: feisty, full of himself, colorful, uninhibited, perhaps even a bit of a wacko (a favorite Kochism). What he really was was one of a kind. Whether intentionally or not, “Koch” shows that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.