“How am I doing?” Ed Koch famously used to ask during his years as New York City’s mayor. The answer was sometimes negative, but wouldn’t be in relation to one of his more recent projects: serving as the subject of a new documentary.
With “Koch,” director Neil Barsky skillfully brings to the screen a New York icon largely unknown to younger generations, and forgotten by older ones. In a striking coincidence, the film opened in New York on Friday, hours after Koch’s death, from heart failure, at age 88.
Few remember when the Bronx was burning, Times Square was a den of sin and the city was on the verge of financial collapse. That was the Gotham the bombastic Koch willfully inherited upon his election in 1977. He saw it as his mission — his destiny — to turn the metropolis around.
“I knew that of all those who were running, I knew more than they did,” the retired politician, now 88, tells Barsky and the camera.
The film, opening Friday in New York, pivots on Koch’s singular personality, but it’s also about a certain era, a time when the city’s future hung in the balance. Many policies enacted by Koch’s successors turned the Big Apple into the shiny, tourist-friendly place it is today, but the film argues that it was Koch’s bold — even chutzpa — moves that laid the groundwork for its amazing recovery.
“I wanted to depict a New York that no longer exists,” Barsky told The Times of Israel by phone from his Manhattan office. “I wanted to focus on the seeds of New York’s recovery that were planted in the Koch era.”
Koch’s status as America’s first celebrity mayor was certainly a draw for the first-time filmmaker. But in addition to displaying his larger-than-life persona, Barsky wanted to highlight how the media-savvy politician arrived at the city’s nadir and arrested its deterioration.
“He was the right guy to be mayor at that point,” Barsky said.
Barsky immerses viewers in that gritty era through carefully curated archival footage, enhanced by a soundtrack from between 1978 and 1989, the years Koch ruled City Hall. Even the typography of the graphics was designed to reflect and evoke the period.
“I initially saw it as an historical film,” said Barsky, 55, a newspaper reporter and Wall Street equity analyst before trying his hand at filmmaking. “It was our editor, Juliet Weber, who saw that there was a contemporary movie in this as well.”
Barsky and his crew followed Koch, then 86, for eight months beginning in September 2010, also interviewing many well-known journalists, politicians, community leaders and Koch associates. Despite jumping back and forth chronologically perhaps 30 times, the film melds seamlessly to tell the tale of a mayor who was once the face of New York.
It does so by concentrating on key moments and issues in Koch’s three-term tenure — how they played out at the time, and how they are reflected upon today. They include Koch’s first campaign and rivalry with Gov. Mario Cuomo; his efforts to win financial support from Washington and avoid municipal bankruptcy; and his handling of the crippling 1980 transit strike. Also highlighted are his controversial closure of an unprofitable Harlem hospital highly valued by the African-American community, his massive revitalization plan for the South Bronx and a huge corruption scandal that rocked his administration.
A running theme in both the film and Koch’s life is speculation about his sexual orientation. After “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo” signs were plastered throughout the city’s subway system during the 1977 campaign, former Miss America Bess Myerson began popping up at Koch’s side at campaign stops and photo ops. Koch deflected questions by saying it would be nice to get married in Gracie Mansion, the official mayor‘s residence. Later, the gay community, convinced Koch was closeted, grew angry with his weak response to the early-’80s AIDS crisis.
On camera, Barsky asks Koch point-blank about his sexual orientation. The octogenarian stares him down and answers, “It’s none of your f – - – ing business,” just as he has to countless others. Koch, who as mayor pushed through legislation protecting gay rights, claims he refuses to reveal his own sexuality to protect other public officials from similar hounding.
With a record number of gay politicians in the new Congress and a lesbian candidate, Christine Quinn, considered a front-runner in next year’s New York mayoral race, the rationalization doesn’t hold water as it once might have. But Koch clearly has no interest in being an LGBT role model, if he is indeed gay. As au courant as he remains with his political endorsements, radio and TV appearances and newspaper columns, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants is still a product of an earlier era, when being openly gay was political suicide.
Barsky emphasizes that, just as he had no desire to make a polemic about Koch, he also wasn’t interested in psychoanalyzing him.
Relying on both recent interviews and archival footage, he lets the Bronx-born mayor speak for himself, in all his complexity and contradictions. Among those contradictions is the proudly Jewish Koch’s belief in the afterlife, which accompanies an insistence that he be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery in upper Manhattan.
(Viewers get to see Koch and a former aide visit his large gravestone, which has already been engraved with an effusive epitaph written by Koch himself.)
Barsky admits that transitioning from print journalism to film posed some challenges. But making Koch the subject of his first documentary was obviously the right choice.
“I was looking for a great story with a great narrative arc, and that was Koch,” the director said. “He trusted me — or maybe it was that he trusted himself — that it would be an honest depiction.”
The former mayor was hospitalized repeatedly during the lead-up to the film’s release, missing Tuesday’s premiere for a medical visit and getting checked into an intensive care unit Thursday. But Barsky, speaking before Koch’s death early Friday morning, said the film reveals the vitality and strength he possessed well into his ninth decade.
“The biggest surprise was how compelling an 86-year-old’s life can be,” Barsky said. “He has the same energy, and he’s still that same street politician. He’s so sharp. The guy’s still in the game.”