Ed Koch at his campaign office in 1977. *AFP photo
Ed Koch at his campaign office in 1977. *AFP photo
Director: Neil Barsky
Showing: Sunday, March 16, BUEI, 4.15pm. 

It’s tempting to say Ed Koch’s death on the day a film about his life was released is just how the former New York City Mayor would have wanted to go out.

But having watched Koch, one suspects the dynamic, yet divisive, publicity-hungry politician would have been distraught at not having the chance to promote the film himself on February 1 this year, complete with his ‘how am I doing?’ catchphrase.

The documentary is a fascinating portrait of man synonymous with New York; brash, outspoken, bullish, opinionated and never happier than when in front of the media.

Koch
charts the fiercely-proud Jew’s early rise, including wonderful campaign clips displaying the man’s insatiable appetite for the 1977 election scrap, which he won.

 The 11 subsequent years in office made Koch an icon at a time of tension and upheaval in the Big Apple.
His scrapping of Sydenham hospital in Harlem – despite pre-election promises to the contrary – highlights his difficult relationship with the black community, while his stubborn response to the 1980 transit strike displayed a force of personality that earned the respect of many even if they did not always agree with his views.

Where the documentary gets really interesting, though, is when it hones in on the man himself. Footage of him as an old man in his apartment contrasts sharply with his ebullient and provocative speeches of the 80s. But despite his failing body, he never lost his marbles, arguing a political issue with family over the dinner table and calling Andrew Cuomo a “schmuck” for not meeting him (Koch endorsed Cuomo to be Governor in 2010).

A recurring theme is Koch’s sexuality. The people behind 1977 mayor election rival Mario Cuomo (father of Andrew) allegedly spread the slogan ‘Vote for Cuomo, not the homo”.

Koch counters – as he did many times – that he does not need to confirm or deny whether he prefers men or women. “It’s none of your f*cking business,” he says, which is delivered more playfully than it sounds on paper. Ironically, despite the rumours,  Koch’s failure to treat the AIDS epidemic seriously enough lost him a lot of gay support. He later said he was heterosexual, although many never believed him.

For every failure there appears to be a triumph. His housing renewal initiative is a lasting legacy, although the corruption scandals among his allies that tarnished his third and final term in office — Koch himself was never tied to any wrongdoing — left a bad taste in many people’s mouths.

Love him or hate him, no-one doubts that Koch loved New York with a fierce pride. He remains the Mayor all others are compared to.