Most politicians acquire something of a rosy glow once they leave office, when even voters who absolutely despised them start pining for the devils they knew. Ed Koch’s sunset years have been more challenging. Koch was elected mayor of New York City in 1978, at a time when the city was crime-ridden and on the brink of bankruptcy. By the time Koch left office in 1989, New York had undergone a fiscal and cultural renaissance, and Koch wasn’t shy about making himself the public face of it. He was out on the streets and on TV, asking citizens, “How’m I doin’?” while cheerleading for all that New York had to offer. But Koch made a lot of enemies in the ’80s, too: in the black community (which felt he purposefully excluded black people from the boom years, while allowing racial conflict to fester), in the gay community (which felt he ignored the AIDS crisis, and shamefully hid his own reported homosexuality), and in organized labor (which disliked the way Koch callously sacrificed union jobs and kowtowed to big business). Since the revival of New York, some have lamented all that got jettisoned along the way, and Koch has been blamed as much as praised for setting the ship on its current course.
Neil Barsky’s Koch doesn’t try to do anything radical as a piece of filmmaking, but Barsky—a former newspaper reporter—covers Koch’s story magnificently as a journalist. He begins with Koch’s first mayoral campaign, when the former Democratic congressman was an underdog against the better-known Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, but won voters over with his muted campaign visual design and plainspoken manner. Barsky then proceeds through the major moments of Koch’s administration, while flashing back to Koch’s early years in politics—when he was known as radically progressive on civil rights—and jumping ahead to the quieter life he leads now. Koch covers its subject pretty thoroughly: dealing with the rumors about his private life, showing how his defensiveness and combativeness sometimes kept him from making politically expedient moves, and appreciating how he took the money that came pouring into New York in the ’80s and plowed it into public works and housing.
But the best scenes in Koch come from the more fly-on-the-wall footage of Koch today. Out on the street, he’s still cheered by some New Yorkers and booed by others, and he’s still willing to argue obstinately with his former constituents, even when he’s supposed to be wooing them for another candidate. In other words, Ed Koch, like politics, remains complicated, and when Barsky shows the ex-mayor bickering with his own family over his public condemnation of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” he makes it clear that discontent with even the most likeable politicians is natural, inevitable, and perhaps even essential.