Any documentary which focuses on a famous figure walks a very fine line. On the one hand, there's a desire to deify, to turn the subject into a sacred cow worth praising, not picking apart. After all, why would you concentrate on someone's public tenure only to take them to task for same (unless that's the sole reason for the overview)? Still, there has to be some perspective. It can't always be glad handing and gold watches. Too much parsing, however, and you'll be accused of a hatchet job. Participants will cry set up while critics will complain about how your heavy editorial hand turned an even keeled overview into a one sided, agenda driven smear campaign.
This is the balancing act journalist turned filmmaker Neil Barksy faced when taking on the tenure of the late mayor of New York City, Ed Koch. Beloved by some, argued by many as a complicated politician who did more for the metropolis itself than its racially divergent citizenry, he was the celebrated leader of the nation's biggest Apple, both eager to please and belligerent as Hell. Over his tenure as mayor, Koch saved NYC, reconfigured 42nd Street and Times Square, reduced crime, and survived as scandal laced term under the watchful eye of Attorney General Rudy Guliani. He was a card, a kook, and a very shrewd power broker.
For his film, Barksy decides that a chronological ordering is best. He leaves the juxtaposition of any insight to those he interviews. The overview is simple - who Koch was, how he became involved in politics, how his "pro law and order" stance and the Blackout of 1977 bolstered his race for mayor, his three successive terms in office, the various rumors (homosexuality) and run-ins (Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo) and his constant courting of the limelight (he appeared in several films, as well as hosting Saturday Night Live in 1983). We also get a glimpse at his youth, his service in World War II, his initial forays into elected office, and his post-tenure twist into a media figure. Along the way, the same issues that dogged him in real life hound the narrative. We learn that Koch completely dropped the ball when the AIDS epidemic struck his city, hard. We also hear the continuing razz that he hated black people, thought minorities were taking advantage of city services, and an overall lack of consideration for his city's growing multiculturalism.
In some ways, Koch suggests that Mayor Ed was a transitional figure, someone who took NYC from a local concern to a national trendsetter. He was the catalyst for what we now consider the Disney-fication of some of New York's most memorable (and exploitative) industries, a man who supported gay rights legislation while systematically decimating the city's alternative lifestyle hangouts. Yet it's the AIDS portion of the movie that really undermines Koch's supposed credibility. While few who were alive in that era can argue for complete and objective understanding of the disease, 'Da Mayor' seemed to play along the Reagan party lines, blaming the victims and not the illness. Since the standard talking points all revolved around homosexuality and intravenous drug use, HIV became something that was easily dismissed, turned into a niche discussion, not something of overriding concern. It's a sad statement and something Koch, both as a man and as a movie, can barely survive. For the viewer, it's infuriating (especially in light of what we know now). For those desperate at the time, it's tragic.
Still, Barksy finds ways to lighten the load, so to speak, to move away from the blood on Koch's (and others) hands and focus, instead, on his goofy persona, his kooky catchphrase ("How'm I Doin'?") and his eventual defeat at the hands of David Dinkins, the city's first African American mayor. One could argue that it's a relatively complete portrait, except for those nagging innuendos and the half-discussed dirt left behind. Indeed, no one wants Koch to turn into the recent J.D. Salinger documentary where everything is TMZ tabloid fodder surrounded by accolades and appreciation. Instead, Barksy's approach is better suited to this material, measuring out both pros and cons in completely cogent and complete arguments. Sure, we could use a bit more scandal to fuel the must-see fire, and no one will really know or understand Koch's conflicting motives, but for those who only know the man by name or reputation, Koch is a journey worth taking. It may be nothing more than an exaggerated A&E Biography, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in dimension.
Zeitgeist delivers an excellent DVD package, one filled with intriguing added content and some quality tech specs. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image does a good job of meshing many type of footage together, never completely compensating for age or quality, but excellent none the less. The colors are vibrant and the newer material detailed. As for the sound situation, we are treated to a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that treats both the conversations and the talking head narrative well. We also get a bit of NYC ambience along the way, and the aural elements here (including a 2.0 Stereo version as well) are handled with polish and proficiency. As for added content, we are treated to a Q&A with Koch (focusing on his reaction to the film), an interview of director Barksy, a trailer, and an intriguing short film entitled Witnesses NYC which offers glimpses of the city during the '80s and testimony from those who remember the Koch years well. Both the filmmaker sit-down and this mini-movie make the overall digital presentation one to prize.
For those of us on the outside looking in, Ed Koch's candidacy and tenure as Mayor of New York City was both a preamble and a punchline. It marked a renaissance for Manhattan and the rest of the five Burroughs but the beginning of the end for a town that many believed could accommodate all manner of lifestyle and lunacy. Earning an easy rating of Highly Recommended, Koch won't change your mind about the man, but it will provide insight into someone who used his public service as a reflection of his personal views. It becomes a tantalizing, if sometimes uneven, exploration.
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