“How’m I doin’?” This was the trademark catchphrase of Edward Irving Koch, the colorful character who served three consecutive terms as the 105th mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. In his phenomenal new documentary, “Koch,” Neil Barsky explores the life and times of the larger-than-life Jewish mayor who helped bring recovery to a city that was “on the balls of its ass.” Barsky, a former journalist for the Wall Street Journal and New York Daily News, was also a Wall Street analyst and hedge fund manager who retired in 2009. He soon decided to begin making documentaries due to the financially crippled state of print journalism.
“I’ve always loved documentaries. Documentary film is the one form of journalism that has really retained its power. In fact, [it may have] increased its ability to influence [and] change a national conversation,” Barsky said as we sat outside a small eatery on Market Street. He first became inspired by documentaries after watching “Hearts and Minds,” a 1974 film about the Vietnam War.
Being a New York native, Barsky decided to make his first film after producing the documentary “Knuckleball.” He described Koch as “one of the most compelling political figures this country’s ever produced.” The documentary opens on a sweep over a breathtaking Manhattan skyline at night, a dreamy landscape of illuminated buildings. Meanwhile, an 80-year-old Koch reminisces about how all of it used to “belong to him,” giving viewers a sense of how big his ego really was.
From here, the film documents two storylines. The first follows the mayor’s origins, rise to fame and terms in office; the other follows his life as an old man and the vote to name the Queens Borough Bridge after him. However, Barsky’s goal was to use Koch’s career to “tell the story of how contemporary New York came to be.” It’s 1977, the Twin Towers are still standing, and Manhattan is quite literally a den of iniquity on the verge of bankruptcy with its rampant drug abuse, skyrocketing crime rates, homelessness abounding, and strip clubs on every corner (especially in the Times Square area). At this point, the documentary utilizes archived footage to achieve that vintage ‘70s and ‘80s look. The grainy snippets from the time period evoke a gritty, rugged portrait of New York City that framed ‘70s flicks like “The French Connection” (1971), “Mean Streets” (1973) and “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975). The documentary is told through interviews with journalists, Koch’s political colleagues and advisers, and the former mayor himself, who has the spirit of a much younger man.
“He loved attention and was comfortable being interviewed in front of a camera. He’s probably appeared in 40 movies and been interviewed thousands of times, so he was very practiced,” Barsky said, when prompted about the experience of interviewing Koch.
Among the events covered in the film, the highlights include the competitive 1977 mayoral election against Mario Cuomo, the 1980 transit strike, the AIDS epidemic, Koch’s sexuality, renewal initiatives and a municipal scandal that brought an end to the era of Koch. These serve as vehicles to show how interesting a figure he was. Not being the biggest fan of documentaries, I was pleasantly surprised to be so entertained by a movie about a man about whom I knew so little. Barsky addressed this by saying, “There’s something about reality unfolding before your eyes and surpris[ing you].” Despite his nebbishy underdog appearance, Koch is depicted as a man who loved his city and wouldn’t take crap from anyone. However, he was still quite the character who loved the power and limelight. For instance, the film shows us clips of him dancing, appearing on Saturday Night Live.
“He was very funny. You have no idea how helpful it is when a guy is funny and every five minutes the audience is gonna laugh. It’s simplistic, but makes for a much better film,” Barsky said. In his old age, he wanted to be buried in a bustling Christian cemetery rather than a condemned Jewish one, picking out his tombstone and epitaph ahead of time.
Although Koch was beloved by many, the film does a great job of showing how he faced lots of unpopularity as his terms progressed, especially from the gay and African-American communities. The former disliked him due to his inaction to combat the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, something they attributed to his “closeted lifestyle.” Koch’s sexuality plays a big part in the movie, and it is interesting to see how he dealt with the question of whether he was gay or not. The latter group became embittered over his decision to close Sydenham Hospital, which is something that he regretted doing later in his life. Nevertheless, it is clear from the film that he was able to revitalize the city by helping make Times Square what it is today and spending billions of dollars on housing construction for the homeless; he really played a major role in cleaning up the city.
Having spent two years on the documentary, Barsky is not worried about its appeal to a younger generation. “When you make a movie you don’t really think about who you’re making it for. You really make it for yourself and hope that there [are] enough universal themes [so] that people enjoy it.”
With no further projects currently lined up, Barsky said that he’s open to making more documentaries, with no desire to make any feature films. “I don’t like movies where they hit you over the head and tell you what to think. I like movies that hopefully let the viewer decide what to think. … It’s nice to affect a conversation. I hope people see [“Koch”] over the years and it will be an important part of New York’s history.”
“Koch” is more than your typical History Channel-esque documentary. It is factual, interesting, and above all, fun. Although Koch died this past February, his legacy still lives on. How’re ya doin’, Ed? Pretty damn well.