Director: Neil Barsky
2 (out of 5) globes
Documentary profiles on contentious figures always begin with the illusion of complexity, the promise that they won’t simply teach the controversy but paint a full portrait that does the subject, and those they affected, justice. But the filmmakers always wind up picking a side. Neil Barsky’s film on former New York City mayor Ed Koch is no different. It begins with testimony from fans, who praise him for revitalizing a dying, dangerous city. Given equal time are those calling him a bully, who blew off minority concerns. “For blacks,” shouts a councilman, “Ed Koch was our nemesis.”
These voices will soon be, if not drowned out, then diminished, in favor, partly, of Koch himself. Koch was still alive when Barsky, a Wall Street Journal reporter, made his film; in fact, he died the day it opened theatrically in the city over which he once lorded. He becomes the most vocal talking head. Granted, he’s not always rah-rah on himself: in his twilight years he fully flip-flopped on his decision to close Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, which served to hire black doctors who could not find employ elsewhere. He defends his oft-deplorable handling of the early AIDS crisis, claiming he felt closing a few bath houses was enough, even as he failed to connect with the movement that would blossom into ACT UP. Barsky delves no further into this issue, taking Koch at his word.
Much of the rest of Koch’s career is less easily dismissed. A progressive New Deal Democrat who initially ran on “abortion, sodomy and divorce,” he successfully seized the mantle during a time when the city needed a cheerleader and a tell-it-like-it-is blowhard to bring it out of the near-bankrupt, crime-infested, Travis Bickle-populated cesspool it had become. But power corrupts — or, in Koch’s case, turned him into a fiscal conservative. His eleven year stint found him kowtowing to real estate, helping to reshape Times Square from a Gomorrah of crime and depravity to a Gomorrah of consumerism and tourists. The poor were kicked out of midtown, as well as much of Manhattan. The elderly Koch is seen touring the area in a limo, reflecting that the work he started, and Rudy Giuliani finished, looks how it was supposed to. Few would complain about the demise of pure danger in New York City, but has the transition always been clean? “Koch” pretends to report and let you decide, but it’s forever nudging you in one direction.