The former New York City mayor Ed Koch, who died at 88 on Feb. 1, was a man both beloved and despised, a larger-than-life figure — or, as his enemies might put it, louder than life. He was disputatiously articulate, with a ”Go on! Challenge me! I dare ya!” spirit that he brought to every press conference and campaign stop. Yet his take-no-prisoners tone was offset by a twinkle of mischief that said: ”I know this is a game, and I love that I’m the master of it!” With his bald pate and gentle leer, Koch looked like a ’70s New York cabdriver, but he was also regally tall, which gave him the relaxed quality of a politician who could float through crowds. Koch (2013, 1 hr., 35 mins., Not Rated), a new documentary released (coincidentally) on the day of his death, is a highlight-to-lowlight chronicle of the man’s three terms as mayor, and in the case of any other mayor, such a narrow focus might have seemed reductive. But in Koch’s case, the job consumed, defined, and branded him. Koch shows us why.
He came into office in 1978, after the Summer of Sam, when New York had run out of money and was considering bankruptcy. The story of how he was elected (defeating an embattled Mario Cuomo) is vintage political theater. Once in office, he rallied for the city and won, a triumph inseparable from his cockeyed magnetism: His wily testimony before Congress got the loan guarantees that New York needed, and he then set about the quixotic task of rebuilding the bombed-out war zone that was the South Bronx. That achievement anchored Koch’s legacy, which was to bring a dying city back to life.
Sadly, his regular-guy humanity was pockmarked with indifference: His refusal to take action on the AIDS crisis was explored in depth in the Oscar-nominated doc released last fall, How to Survive a Plague (a film that Koch, in a mea culpa, publicly endorsed). As a politico, Ed Koch loved power a little too much. But as a leader, he was a storybook embodiment of New York’s contradictions, which is why his chapters in the city’s saga loom so large. Koch: B+