Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Koch: The Man, the Mayor, the Maverick

In 1981, the New York Republican Party supported lifelong Democrat Ed Koch’s re-election bid.  He has since returned the favor, periodically endorsing Republicans like Pres. George W. Bush, Sen. Al D’Amato, Gov. George Pataki, and Andrew Eristoff.  Throughout his public life, Mayor Koch has been something of a maverick and he is always good for a lively quote.  Neil Barsky documents the triumphs and controversies of the iconic mayor in the simply but aptly titled Koch (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

If one thing comes through loud and clear in Koch it is the animosity between him and Mario Cuomo.  It all harks back to 1977, when the Cuomo mayoral campaign allegedly gave winking approval to the guerrilla campaign urging New Yorkers: “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”  Shrewdly capturing the center and the right of the electorate, Koch ultimately vanquished his Cuomo running as the Liberal Party candidate.  However, questions about Koch’s private life would persist.  In fact, Barsky’s only real misstep is the inordinate about of time spent on this is-he-or-isn’t-he question.

For those New York transplants arriving during the Giuliani or Bloomberg eras, Koch is a briskly entertaining primer on the City’s 1970’s and 1980’s history.  Recognizable names like Bess Myerson and Donald Manes, the late Queens Borough President, whose corruption scandal also tarnished the Koch administration, are put into full context.  There are also plenty of his “how’m I doing?” greatest hits and the frequent media appearances that established a new template for New York mayors.

Barsky scored top-shelf access to Hizzoner, but the Koch of today comes across a bit sad, clearly uncomfortable with his status as a New York political graybeard-gadfly.  Viewers can tell he misses the action.

While Barsky examines his legacy warts-and-all, his documentary will easily convince viewers Koch was the right no-nonsense man for the job, like a pre-Giuliani Giuliani.  Koch is funnier though.  Shrewdly, Barsky emphasizes his humor whenever possible.  The results, gently prodded along by Mark Degli Antoni’s peppy underscore, are compulsively watchable.  One of the most entertaining documentaries of the young year, so far, for both political and pop culture junkies, Koch the movie opens this Friday (2/1) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.