Koch: Hamptons Review

Lively doc observes a critical period in NYC history

Neil Barsky spends an hour and a half with a subject whose career could fill a Ken Burns series.

THE HAMPTONS, NEW YORK — Made with the former mayor's cooperation but allowing ample screen time to those with harsh things to say about him, Neil Barsky's Koch offers as comprehensive a picture as it can in 94 minutes of a man whose tenure merits a miniseries. Small-screen appeal is strong, and specialized theatrical exhibition will draw its fair share of New Yorkers and New Yorkers-at-heart.

Framing the story with scenes from the recent past, Barsky finds the octogenarian still visible in New York City's political life: stumping in 2010 for everything from local Assemblyman candidates to the gubernatorial contest, being toasted by current mayor Michael Bloomberg, having a bridge renamed for him. It isn't long before a witness to one of these honors takes issue with it, reminding viewers of the problems Koch had with many black constituents.

Barsky leaps back to 1977, with images of a Big Apple on the brink of collapse. There's Ed Koch, PA set up on street corners, claiming he's the best of the seven brave souls hoping to become mayor of the imperiled metropolis. Mixing plentiful period footage and interviews with participants including political strategist David Garth, the film sees how the outspoken Koch won the job, then follows as he quickly earned a reputation for nerve.

Koch stares down the transit union, daring to venture among the commuters whose subway rides were replaced by hours-long walks to work; he goes to DC to head off the city's bankruptcy. We see one of his most controversial acts, the closing of Harlem's Sydenham Hospital, which he now admits was a mistake -- though whether he means it was immoral or simply a strategic error is unclear.

Some of the film's talking heads suggest the latter. One black leader defends Koch from charges of racism, accusing him instead of across-the-board opportunism. Koch's problems with the gay community, which accused him of exacerbating the AIDS crisis, get equal attention. Barsky lingers on the issue of the mayor's sexuality -- many believe he's a closeted gay man whose foot-dragging on AIDS resulted from fear of being outed -- but Koch maintains his stance when the director asks about it point blank: "It's none of your fucking business." (Gay, straight, or asexual, Koch's use of former Miss America Bess Myerson as a photo-op companion during his first campaign was shameless.)

Amid the critical voices, though, Koch finds much to praise -- particularly in the administration's massive spending on housing, which one interviewee says is as responsible for lowered crime rates as any of the controversial police tactics that earned Rudy Giuliani renown in later years.

Director: Neil Barsky
Producer: Jenny Carchman
Director of photography: Tom Hurwitz
Music: Mark De Gli Antoni
Editor: Juliet Weber
No rating, 94 minutes