The Quintessential New Yorker and Mayor on the Silver Screen: “Koch”

Bob Feinberg |

“Koch,” the documentary film on Ed Koch’s colorful political career, opens theatrically on Feb. 1, 2013.  Film excerpt courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Neil Barsky’s “Koch” provides a sweeping yet personal cinematic portrait of the “quintessential New Yorker,” Edward I. Koch–from his modest beginnings as Jewish boy growing up in the Bronx and then in Newark; to his eight years as a liberal Democratic congressman representing New York’s 17th and 18th congressional districts; to the office that would make him a player on the world stage, the Mayor of New York City, which he held for three terms from 1978 to 1989.

Ed Koch campaigned against his predecessor Mayor Abe Beame outside subways, asking “How am I doing?” Film excerpt courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

First-time filmmaker Barsky is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News, as well as a life-long New Yorker. At the premiere of “Koch” at the Hamptons Film festival this summer, Barsky said he wanted to create a “love letter to New York that really was evocative of a time and place.” In making the documentary, Barsky and his production team mined archival footage of the 1977 Democratic primary, in which Koch, running on a “law and order” platform, defeated incumbent Abe Beame, Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, among others, following the summer of the city-wide blackout and rioting.

Barsky also addressed Koch’s unsuccessful 1982 bid for the governor’s office, hampered by his public comments about the “sterility” of the suburban and upstate New York lifestyle. Koch’s uneasy relationship with the city’s gay community is evoked through his approval of a landmark gay and lesbian rights ordnance, his Health Department’s decision to shutter the city’s gay bathhouses, and his lifelong refusal to acknowledge whether or not he himself is gay.

Mayor Ed Koch was criticized by gay AIDS activists during the early days of the health crisis. Film excerpt courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Beyond the history shown in “Koch,” the film also reveals personal aspects of Mayor Koch’s present life, following him to the Scarsdale home of his younger sister for a Yom Kippur break-fast, and to his Greenwich Village apartment, where he watches television, talks on the phone, and eats his meals — alone and out of the public spotlight.

The theatrical release of “Koch” is Feb. 1, 2013.


This article is excerpted from an earlier MetroFocus article on the film’s premiere.  Writer Bob Feinberg is general counsel of WNET and co-founder/chairman of the Montclair Film Festival.

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