Judge Matt Dicker thinks Mayor McCheese is due for a documentary.
"How am I doing?"
I was only five years old and living a continent away when Ed Koch's mayoralty came to an end, and thus I was too busy playing with action figures and learning how to tie my shoes to care one way or the other about the very polarizing Mayor Koch. Thus while many viewers of Koch will come into the film with a preconceived notion of the Mayor, I approached the film with an open mind, ready to learn why people have such strong feelings about him.
Facts of the Case
From 1978 to 1989, Ed Koch was the enormously powerful and enormously controversial Mayor of New York City. Elected to three terms before his eventual defeat, Mayor Koch's supporters claim that he helped lead New York out of bankruptcy and instituted many of the policies that led to New York's revival in the 1990s, while his opponents argue he ignored the concerns of African-Americans and homosexuals. Using the framing device of a fight over naming the Queensboro Bridge after the former Mayor, Koch tells the story of Koch's mayoralty and provides insight into his life at the time of filming.
Early in Koch, we see a fierce political fight over the renaming of the Queensboro Bridge in honor of the city's former three-term mayor, Ed Koch. These kind of renamings of infrastructure for political figures happen all the time, and without having much knowledge of Mayor Koch, I was surprised to see such vehement opposition to the renaming more than two decades after the end of his mayoralty. After watching just a few more minutes of the film, it soon became clear why Mayor Koch is still capable of creating such passionate reactions.
Koch is no puff piece love letter to the former Mayor, and as director Neil Barsky makes clear in an interview included as a bonus feature, he was not a great fan of the Mayor before making the movie. Both in the archive footage and interviews conducted for the film, Koch comes across at once funny, divisive, charming, maddening, clever, and strident. He is a man entirely comfortable with who he is, reliant for his happiness on the adoration of the public but unfazed by those who hate him.
Barsky works diligently to figure out who Mayor Koch is deep down, and as he never entirely succeeds in reaching such a conclusion, it's hard not to think that perhaps there was no "deep down" for Mayor Koch. The film makes clear that Mayor Koch said exactly what he thought and pulled no punches, and it's not clear that there was much more to the Mayor than what he made known to the public. The one aspect of Mayor Koch's personality that he was never willing to discuss, his rumored homosexuality, is quickly dismissed by the Mayor as "none of your f***ing business."
Yet even without an answer to who Mayor Koch was on a deeper level, Koch is a detailed, thoughtful, and entertaining look at a fascinating time in New York City's history. Moving at a brisk pace, the film starts by providing the context of Koch's term as Mayor and what he confronted when he moved to Gracie Mansion, and then goes on to cover many of the Mayor's works and initiatives. The film provides more than a fair hearing to some of the Mayor's biggest critics, namely those who charge that he was insensitive to the African-American community in the closing of Sydenham Hospital and did not respond appropriately to the AIDS crisis. Despite Koch's protestations and explanations, these issues clearly are black marks on his legacy. Yet the Mayor's achievements are also shown, and it's clear that Koch left New York City much better than he found it.
Koch comes with some nice bonus features, and notably avoids the common practice of dumping reels of unused footage as a bonus feature. Instead, the DVD includes an interesting short film titled "Witness NYC" that was also directed by Barsky, a question and answer session held with Mayor Koch at a screening of the film, and an interview with director Barsky. While it was interesting to see Koch's reaction to the film, there isn't much offered in his interview that adds much to the statement made by the film. The interview with Barsky, on the other hand, is a worthwhile discussion that helps give a sense of how he approached making the film and looks at his untraditional background as a documentarian.
There is nothing to complain about with the technical aspects of the presentation. Presented in 16x9 anamorphic with both Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1, the DVD adequately captures the film. Much of the footage included is grainy file footage that would not look great under any circumstances, but the modern footage looks sharp with crisp colors, and the sound is clear.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As is the case for any political documentary, those with strong feelings one way or the other about the subject will likely find that their point of view wasn't adequately addressed, and thus those who passionately love or hate Mayor Koch will likely feel that the film glosses over their concerns. As a dispassionate outsider, however, I feel the film took an honest approach and that the outcome is balanced.
Mayor Koch was famous for constantly asking "How am I doing?" While the answer to that question is a complicated one, the question of this film's quality is far simpler. Neil Barsky has directed a smart and engaging documentary that approaches its subject honestly. Though Koch is not able to get as deep into the psyche of Mayor Koch as I'd have liked, the portrait of the Mayor that is shown is nonetheless a compelling one.
This film's doing great.
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