How He Did, by Dayne Linford
Given that Ed Koch, the titular subject of Neil Barsky’s documentary Koch, just passed away on the first of last month, it’s a wonderful thing that Barsky was able to make this documentary when he did, because the singular gift of this work is the way it contrasts the words of Koch earlier in life, captured in speeches, news footage, campaign footage, etc., to the words and attitudes of Koch late in life, as an old man visiting his grave ready for him, spending Yom Kippur with family, and serving still as a political figure of importance, giving endorsements and, as always, strong opinions on current events.
The film starts with Ed Koch’s first campaign for mayor of New York City, which he wins, going on to serve three terms from 1978-1989. Then, it proceeds basically as it pleases, going backward to his childhood (very briefly), or his beginnings in politics, or zooming forwards to present day (at the time of filming) Ed Koch, endorsing the son of his political rival or riding to various functions throughout New York, commenting on the city as he passes. This allows the film to show the changes in the man, the mistakes he made, might have made, or didn’t make, what he feels about an issue at the end of his life as opposed to when he first sought office. As a documentary on political life, then, it’s invaluable, going deep into the psychology of it, particularly the psychology of an ethnic, local political figure, very different from national politics. What kind of man is Ed Koch, what are his justifications for the decisions he made?
Even with this structure, however, you could have a boring movie. So much of the success of Ed Koch, and of Koch, can be attributed to his bizarre charisma, the way he draws you in, gets you to listen to his frankly self-serving story about the time he scolded Regan on being more thick-skinned, or his speech concerning the ground zero mosque. And that charisma is put to ample use by the filmmaker, who can’t stop watching him any more than we can.
However, this is no hagiography. Barsky is unblinking in the portrait he draws of the mayor, fully aware of his many faults as well as his virtues, the ideal of the straight talking politician, who is also often pig-headed, ruthless, prideful and shameless. We spend time on Koch’s successes (he basically remade the city from Taxi Driver New York into modern New York), and his failures (his administration was marked by racial and homosexual insensitivity and outright antagonism) all of which builds a portrait of a complex political animal, a man of morals but also of practical realities, as he described himself, a “liberal with sanity.” One of the best aspects of this film, however, is that Barsky also gives Koch a chance to explain himself. Multiple times we cut from news footage of an event, with commentary by other political or news figures who lived it, to Koch, who offers his explanation of what happened and why. It’s a particular testament to the man’s strength of character that he’s very willing to admit mistakes, to explain why he did something, even if that explanation is that he was just simply too prideful to heed others who got in his way. His attitude so often can be summed again in his own words, when, reacting to the insight that every mayor before him had bent to pressure on a particular issue, he said, “Well, that’s no way to be mayor!”
Ultimately, Koch is an incredibly complex portrait of an incredibly complex man, a completely honest yet decidedly humanist portrayal of one of the seminal politicians of the last half century, a man who gave nearly everything to his city and lifted it out of depression but whose final term was also marked by incredible levels of graft and racial tension (the graft never quite making it to him, but felling most of his administration). It’s harsh, but generous, like the man himself, a politician who built his legacy on the question turned into political slogan, “How’m I doin’?”