Documentaries are good because, for the most part, they take us places we’ve never been and/or introduce us to people that we may have known about via sound bites and news stories, but really didn’t know in person. Such is the case with the film Koch, a look at the life and career of Ed Koch, the feisty, in your face, three-term mayor of New York City during a very turbulent period.
If you were around in the 1970s, and associate New York City with the films you saw in that era, chances are you immediately think of Serpico, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and others of that genre that focused on the crime and grunge milieu that permeated the largest city in our nation. This was also the period of the notorious “Son of Sam” serial killer who had the Big Apple in a state of paranoid fear from the summer of 1976 until his capture in August 1977.
Ed Koch was in politics all throughout these years, and being a politician, he was both loved and reviled, depending on which side of the fence was yours. During his first campaign for mayor, against future Governor Mario Cuomo, Koch was knocked by his opponents for being gay because he never married. What the Cuomo campaign failed to grasp is that Koch was actually a bigamist of sorts. He was solidly wedded to both politics and the City of New York, and nothing could sway his passion for those two loves. Through archival footage we revisit Koch’s career from being a stalwart liberal in the 1960s to a more pro-business mayor in the 1980s. There’s also some latter day footage of Koch reminiscing about his life and friends and visiting with family.
Ed Koch could be a cantankerous, self-aggrandizing individual when it suited his purposes. His battle cry of “How am I doing?” echoed throughout his public appearances. But despite his claim to populism, he had quite a few battles with the Black community over some pretty serious issues, such as the closing of a major hospital in Harlem, to something more trivial, like having a bridge named after him when he left office.
When Ed Koch first became mayor, the Times Square area in the heart of mid-town Manhattan was number one with a bullet, pun intended, on the list of crime-riddled areas. If you have only walked down 42nd Street lately, you might find that hard to believe. It’s alive with lights, theatres, restaurants, and all sorts of attractions for tourists. There are those who malign this reclamation by calling it the “Disneyland of the North.” But it was Ed Koch who spearheaded the transition.
Love him or hate him, the film Koch gives us a small slice of what it might have been like to be around this interesting, funny, ferocious, and dedicated man. Whether you agreed with him and his policies, or wished he would just shut up and go away, he was never boring. And as both the consummate politician and unabashed self-promoter, which are usually one and the same, Ed Koch managed to die on February 1st this year, on the very morning of opening day of this film in his beloved New York City. You couldn’t write a more perfect headline-grabbing ending to any work of fiction.
The unrated Koch is now showing at the Mariemont Theatre.