In the documentary Koch, much is made of the former New York City mayor’s love of the spotlight: As one friend notes of the ailing 88-year-old, “If there are cameras in the hospital, he will never die.” With his usual panache at garnering media attention, however, when Koch did die, it was on the very day this biographical film—made with his participation and approval—was released. Though former governor (and Koch’s detested rival) Mario Cuomo and current mayor Michael Bloomberg are also in the film, Koch has only one co-star, and that is the city he did so much to shape. The three-term mayor’s imprint on New York is still indelible, and that’s what makes this culled-from-the-headlines portrait more interesting than a standard biography might’ve been.
Born poor in the Bronx and defiantly proud of being Jewish, Koch devoted his life, including his personal life, to his political career. The personality that emerges is brash, funny, decisive to the point of being insensitive, not above backroom deal making, and capable of taking hard action even when it costs him the respect of the people who meant everything to him—New Yorkers. Early on, he admits that closing Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, an act that got him labeled as a racist, was a mistake; and that he was never going to marry Bess Myerson, the Jewish Miss America whose staged companionship helped him win his first mayoral campaign, overcoming the ubiquitous slogan from the opposition, “Vote for Cuomo not the homo.” Koch refuses to proclaim his sexual orientation during the AIDS crisis, alienating the gay community (though perhaps striking a blow for privacy), and is implicated in a corruption scandal involving his cronies, powerful party bosses from the outer boroughs.
But as the film ably illustrates, Koch was the driving force that transformed the New York of the 1970s—a filthy, graffiti-strewn, crime-ridden hellhole on the brink of bankruptcy—to the glamorous international metropolis of the 1980s. He obtains a massive loan from Washington instead of a skimpy handout, spends it wisely, cleans up Times Square with martial force, and rebuilds Brooklyn and the Bronx—areas so devastated by arson and rioting that they were famously compared to “Dresden after the war.”
Unlike Koch himself, Neil Barsky recognizes that housing was perhaps the mayor’s greatest legacy, and if the director doesn’t quite penetrate Koch’s public persona of quips and carefully honed anecdotes to reveal something of the man behind the mayor, he does create a three-term travelogue of New York’s ups and downs, and of how this rough-and-tumble politico was indeed the best man for the worst of times.