Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Neil Barsky's KOCH: all about that other divisive mayor who ruled before Giuliani

The very first statement we get from former Mayor of New York City, Ed Koch -- one that leads off the new documentary about the man and his time -- is a quiet but funny humdinger. If there was ever any doubt that old "How'm I doin'?" considered the city as his personal fiefdom, this moment should lay it to rest. And yet the opening statement cuts two ways. TrustMovies would guess that probably all mayors feel somewhat this way about their city. Mr. Koch, as was (and is) his wont, simply gives it voice -- a habit the man has always had and that has gotten him into hot water as often as it has served him well. As one of the many people interviewed for this film points out, this guy had a really hard time editing himself.

All of which makes this new documentary (from first-time, full-length filmmaker Neil Barsky, shown at right) so interesting, so much fun, and so full of that peculiar combination of personalities, power, desires and events that makes big-city politics so nasty and fascinating.

From that opening statement, regarding Koch's sense of New York City whenever he flies back to it at night, Barsky moves to the vote taken on whether or not to re-name the Queensborough/59th Street Bridge after the former mayor. Listening to the remarks -- pro and con -- about Koch's record, according to these other politicians, is eye-opening to say the least.

The filmmaker moves relatively gracefully back in forth in time, as he shows us this mayor at work over the couple of decades during which he served and then reigned. This is good history, with all its accompanying high and low points, scandals, betrayals and mis-takes. (Listen to Koch on the "mistake" he made by closing Syden-ham Hospital, in which he manages to all but to pull the rug from under his apology. What? Koch make a mistake? Are you crazy?)

Along with the public history comes a certain amount of personal history, too -- though seldom out of the mouth of Mr. How'm I doin'? himself. Koch, a "confirmed bachelor," is quite sparing in the details of his personal life. The news media, ever alert for hint of scandal, has provided a certain amount of personal detail over the years, and Barsky addresses a good bit of this. Most of the gossip surrounds the "is he or isn't he?" aspect of Koch's sexuality, which the former mayor has always refused to address, even now, when he is long out of office and when being gay is hardly unusual in New York City and elsewhere.

So we visit again the nasty primary between Koch and Mario Cuomo (above, right), in which those rumors took printed form, and in which Mario's son-and-now-governor Andrew was said to have had a hand. Naughty! And so, very suddenly in that campaign Koch was seen everywhere, holding hands with former Miss America Bess Myerson (below, right). Those were the days! Still, it says something about the guy that he has managed to keep his private life private. Bill Clinton, I imagine, can only marvel.

One of the few scenes in the documentary that does capture a more private ex-Mayor is during a visit to his family, with Ed playing the "famous uncle." This proves a telling scene, in which some of his family members give it back to Koch just as good as he gives -- on the subject of opening a mosque in the area of 9/11's Ground Zero.

Ed is no dummy, and another scene in which he goes up against Senator William Proxmire in DC (in the hearings regarding giving a loan to New York City during its tough financial time) is very much worth seeing and remembering. He was a smart man and a good politician -- though supremely divisive. He is simply not cut out, as the movie well demonstrates, for being any kind of a conciliator. (His comment about upstate New Yorkers when he visited there, shown below, probably lost him his ill-advised attempt at becoming governor.)

Barsky's documentary is nicely balanced without ever being too simple or easy. Watching Koch here, you'll probably grow angry with him all over again and agree with his campaign manager as she quietly nails him him after one of his tirades. Third terms have proven difficult for many politicians, and Koch's was no exception. That was when all the scandal, long brewing, finally broke, and as one interviewee points out, his wheeling and dealing "was a way to get elected, but years later, you can still draw a straight line from that to all the corruption and the people involved."

Koch, neither the movie nor the man, is likely to convert anyone at this point in time, but for those (like me) who've long been on the fence about the guy, it will provide a lot to enjoy and consider -- even if, on balance, it slants maybe just a tad too much in the direction of hagiography.

From Zeitgeist Films and running a relatively swift 95 minutes, the documentary opens this Friday, February 1, in New York City (where else?) at our Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Did I say "Where else?" Try Los Angeles on Friday, March 1, at Laemmle's new Royal, Town Center 5 and Playhouse 7, and in Santa Ana at the Regency South Coast Village. Evidently our old mayor was something of a nationwide figure, because the film will hit another dozen cities around the country in the months to come. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.

The photos above are from the film itself, except 
for that of Mr. Barksky, which is by Dave Kotinsky 
and comes courtesy of Getty Images NA.

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