For those of us who were either too young to remember New York City mayor Ed Koch’s three terms or just didn’t live in New York then, the documentary Koch seems like the perfect introduction to a complicated man who was the face of a complicated city during a complicated time. Somehow, though, his cameo in The Muppets Take Manhattan feels more revealing than anything here.
It’s not that Koch is bad or unrevealing—few documentaries in which the subject participates are so critical of the subject—it’s just that the pre-Koch years in New York get short shrift, and if your only reference for the crap state of New York City in the 1970s is Death Wish, you’re coming at Koch from a disadvantage.
Still, Koch isn’t really about what Koch did. And ultimately, it’s not so critical of him. It’s about what makes him Ed Koch, and the thing that drives him. If the movie is to be believed, it’s ego.
That can’t really be what drove Koch, who died in early February, but that’s what comes across on screen. To paraphrase a line from Moneyball, he’s the kind of guy who enters a room and his dick has already been there for two minutes.
Koch opens with the mayor campaigning in 2010 for a woman running for state assembly. He asks if people along the campaign trail remember him, then with his characteristic humor asks whether the memories are fond.
Then, we go back to 1977 when Koch was first running for mayor of the biggest and most crime-ridden city in the Unites States. (Note: It’s distracting to see the date “1977” on the big screen while listening to Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” a song released in 1983.) One of the first criticisms leveled at Koch, in his campaign and in the film, is his self-touted liberalism combined with the wheeling and dealing he did with New York’s old political bosses in the late 1970s.
That standard political wheeling and dealing is the thing that eventually undoes him in his third term in the late 1980s. Koch was mayor while one of the biggest political scandals in New York City’s history unfolded. Though he was never implicated directly, the scandal took its toll and he lost his fourth bid for mayor to David Dinkins.
We’re reminded Koch rebuilt New York City housing after being accused of neglecting it for years. He started the revitalization of Times Square (something Rudolph Giuliani is often credited or blamed for). He made enemies in the gay community for his stance on the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
But we know all that. More interesting in Koch is the former mayor’s non-mellowing over the years. He’s still sharp-tongued, brash and quick to dismiss people who disagree with him. When he goes to his sister’s home in Scarsdale, NY, for a Yom Kippur celebration, he gets into a lightly heated debate with his nephew over whether the so-called Ground Zero mosque should be built two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.
“Yes, they have a right [to build the so-called mosque],” Koch tells his nephew John Thaler. “And we have a right to protest. And I protest.”
Another family member interrupts him, “John’s right. You’re wrong. Let’s go.” And for a moment, the man who can’t stop talking stops talking.
It’s hard to say whether Koch will hold the interest of anyone who wasn’t directly affected by his terms as mayor. His political power reached beyond New York City for years, but now the question that seems to be asked about him most is whether he’s gay. (In the 1977 mayoral election, signs popped up on the subway, “Vote Cuomo, not the homo.”) In typical Koch fashion, he tells the filmmakers, “It’s none of your fucking business.”
After watching Koch, the picture of the man isn’t any clearer. But his Muppets Take Manhattan cameo is still fun.
Directed by Neil Barsky