Film & TV

Koch Movie Review: An Effective Primer on a Voluble and Charismatic Mayor

Love him or hate him, Ed Koch was New York in the 1980s, and Koch's bio account of his mayoral tenure offers almost equal measures of celebration and censure. Director Neil Barsky's film never shies away from Koch's controversies, exploring his third term's devastating corruption scandal and giving voice to critics who viewed him as, among other things, a racist (thanks to his closing of Harlem's Sydenham Hospital), a hypocritical homophobe (courtesy of persistent rumors of his gayness and his administration's slow response to the AIDS crisis), and an "opportunist." Still, Koch nonetheless also finds time to flirt with hagiography. In copious archival clips and contemporary footage with family, campaigning for others, and having the Queensboro Bridge named after him, Koch is presented as a no-nonsense loudmouth whose love of New York was only matched by his love of attention. The film has to skim—less a failing of Barsky's than a testament to Koch's involvement in so many pressing social and economic issues, including his landmark housing-reform work and his response to the murder of Yusef Hawkins. Still, if unlikely to change anyone's mind about its subject, it's an effective primer on a voluble and charismatic mayor who embodied the spirit of the city he loved.
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Nick Schager is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group and its film partner, the Village Voice. VMG publications include LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.