MRR Review: "Koch"

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Three-time New York City Mayor (1978-1989) Ed Koch was combative, funny, and blunt. He was also intensely private. 'Koch' gives us a contemporary history of the world's greatest city, and an intimate portrait of the 86-year old former mayor, as he confronts his own mortality and legacy. The film examines issues still relevant today - race, homelessness, AIDS, and gay rights - and gives us a window into the trials and tribulations of the nation's most famous mayor in the world's most wondrous city.
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MRR Review: "Koch"

-- Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 8, 2012
Directed by: Neil Barsky
Genre: Documentary/Biography/History

For years, mayors of even the largest cities in the country were mostly unknown beyond their constituents. In today's era of social media and the Internet, mayors like Newark, New Jersey's Cory Booker enjoy a national platform and name recognition. This simply wouldn't have happened before computers became common household items. A glaring exception to this rule was Ed Koch, who served as mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. As the elected leader of the largest city in the country, he had a national stage that few politicians of the era could match. The tumultuous period of the infamous mayor's tenure in office is the subject of "Koch," a documentary of his life during and after politics.

The documentary opens in the present day, where the city council is having an acrimonious meeting over whether to rename a New York City bridge in Koch's honor. The members of the council are bitterly divided, which is fitting because much of the city was similarly divided over Koch's legacy when he left office. As the pros and cons of renaming the bridge are brought to light, the film flashes back to 1977 when Koch left his job as a congressman to run for mayor. After winning the election, Koch delved into the financial crisis plaguing the city with a whirlwind force that became one of his trademarks as mayor.

After plowing through the budget, he began to focus on the crime and housing problems, two blights that still haunt the city. He championed the construction of more public housing in the underserved Bronx, which gained him many fans in the borough that is home to the New York Yankees. He also worked to bring more jobs to the city and revitalize places like Times Square, which was a hotbed of criminal activity at the time. As he pursued these goals, several areas of the city were cleaned up; however, Koch made enough enemies along the way to somewhat tarnish these good deeds. Koch rode a wave of popularity for a time, which is when he also became a household name across the country. The good times didn't last, because many problems, including crime, continued to be only partially resolved. Despite these pressing issues, Koch continued to give bombastic and highly entertaining interviews and press conferences, many of which are shown in the documentary.

Koch let director Neil Barsky interview him extensively for the film, which sheds light on how the former mayor is still well known two decades after leaving office. Barsky weaves present-day interviews with archival footage that shows just how close the city was to the brink in the 1980s. Koch's outsized personality shines during the interviews, even as he explains why he made some of his more controversial and difficult budget decisions to prevent the city from falling into bankruptcy. He may be derided in certain circles, but what he accomplished under almost impossible circumstances is fairly remarkable.

Those who didn't live in New York City in the 1980s probably only knew the city from its reputation as a cesspool of criminal activity. Television and movies only exacerbated this image, painting the city in a terrible light. Some will say this was Koch's fault and that Rudy Guiliani, himself no stranger to controversy, swept the criminals off the streets and cleaned up Koch's mess in the 1990s. This is a bit revisionist, because the story goes much deeper than that. Some of the reduction in crime that Guiliani enjoyed was a result of programs implemented during Koch's tenure, a point which "Koch" tries to drive home. In doing so, critics have said that director Barsky is too pro-Koch to provide an unbiased view.

The reality is that "Koch" ultimately tells the tale of the former mayor's career, warts and all. It is completely unbiased and doesn't gloss over anything, even the securities scandal that would eventually end his time in office. The documentary also shows how Koch alienated the African-American and gay communities because of his confrontational and unsympathetic approach to his job. For every triumph given screen time in "Koch," there is a scandal that seems to balance it out. The result is a profile of a man who had just as many fans as detractors, for better or worse. Whether viewers lived in New York City during his reign, they will be very entertained by the character study that "Koch" turns out to be.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars