Being a born and bred New Yorker, I have been familiar with Mayor Ed Koch before and during his three-term reign of office in NYC, as well as after his defeat by David Dinkins in 1989. He can be summed up as the epitome of a person with ”Attitude.” I remember him as a thinner, much more youthful “left-leaning” idealist who marched in the south for Civil Rights and opposed the Vietnam War and was elected to the House of Representatives in the early 1970’s. I also remember an older, thicker Koch as a man who still had power and used that power to endorse and campaign for Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and George W. Bush…so what does that mean? I believe it shows us the crux of what this informative documentary, directed by Neil Barsky, makes clear – above all Ed Koch was an “opportunist.” Politics were in the forefront of Ed Koch’s decision making – strategizing about positioning himself in the “art” of making and trading alliances and breaking them without regrets. He could be stubborn, amusing, annoying and always self-centered- like most politicians, but more pronounced and obvious.
This film is revelatory and nostalgic in many ways – it shows grainy footage of NYC during those tumultuous years of the Transit Strike, AIDS crisis, “blackout” of 1977, graffiti covered subways, Son of Sam’s hold on the city’s psyche, as well as so many other screaming headline events in a “city that never sleeps.” And always we hear the now Octogenarian Mayor commenting on events, reminiscing and still thin-skinned, taking umbrage on former political “enemies.”
There is a focus on Mayor Koch’s stance on many issues where he was unyielding – particularly the shutting down of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem that Ed Koch closed down despite intense community protest and campaign promises which resulted in accusations of racism. This is the one regret that the 87 year old reflects on during the film, but not because of human concerns, but because it was a bad political move that previous Mayors had the good sense not to tamper with. The growing AIDS epidemic was ignored by this Mayor whose own personal life is touched on – discussions as to whether he himself was a closeted gay man. I remember to counter those rumors, Koch had Bess Myerson - a beautiful former Miss America and Commissioner of Consumer Affairs under former Mayor John Lindsey, always by his side acting as his “companion” to the point of holding hands during one of his victorious election campaigns.
The film also showed how Koch contributed to the turn-around of the housing crisis and deterioration in the Bronx through many housing initiatives that many of us to this day were not familiar with. His own personality often overshadowed his accomplishments. The grating, nasal voice asking the public how he was doing? belied a steely inner core. There are scenes with his sister’s family at a holiday dinner showing how colorful, egotistical and engaged in politics Koch was – the personal and the political were always intertwined. He died at age 88, a week before the film was released.