AJFF Review: “Koch” (****)

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Ed Koch, the subject of Neil Barsky’s “Koch”

I was born in the mid-1980s and only visited New York City for the first time in 1998, so Ed Koch was only ever a name to me. I definitely heard the name– perhaps on the news or in “Seinfeld” reruns, but never knew anything about the man. Neil Barsky’s strikingly well-timed documentary is not only a thorough portrait of the famed mayor and the changing forces at work in New York City through the 1970s and 80s, but also an inclusive educational work for those of us coming in with no background. This colorful character is so clearly presented, “Koch” almost feels like a narrative feature at times, despite never playing like one. Ed Koch passed away on February 2nd, coincidentally the same day this film opened in select cinemas. “Koch” also features as one of the most high-profile documentaries of this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.

Beginning with the obligatory Manhattan skyline shots, the film quickly establishes a fantastic sense of New York City in the late 70s before brusquely carrying us into and through the 80s. Every major point of contention throughout Koch’s time in office is explored– his political party-hopping endorsements, his fight against Midtown’s ingrained sex shop culture, his poor relationships with both the black and the gay communities, his efforts to elevate property values in Manhattan and the tension between him and the Jewish community (to which he belonged).

“He’s worse than a racist, he’s an opportunist,” one of the documentary’s contributors said regarding his relationship with the black community. Describing himself as a “liberal with sanity,” Koch exhibited a fiscally conservative, socially liberal stance– especially during the revitalization of Midtown in the 80s. He fought and won 47 lawsuits alleging that he was trying to rid Midtown of poor people by justifying the immediate tax revenues his developments brought into the city to provide services for those poor people. 

“Koch” explores the man, the mayor, the enduring political figure and the celebrity. Some creativity is displayed in the editing (particularly during his first election) and there is much resourcefulness to be found in trimming all the fat from the endless archival footage. A lot of screentime is given to recent interview footage with Koch, mostly in the final act. While he remained as interesting as ever, this damages the balance of the film, both in terms of flow and objectivity. I screened this film on February 3rd, the day after his passing. I was struck by one of the last quotes in the film: “If they can keep a camera on him in the operating room, he will never die.”

4 out of 5 stars.

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