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Movie Review: 'Koch' -- 3.5 stars

Ed Koch in the office of his campaign

Ed Koch in the office of his campaign manager, David Garth, in September 1977. Credit: Ed Koch in the office of his campaign manager, David Garth, in September 1977.

Koch
3.5 stars
Documentary by Neil Barsky

However you feel about Ed Koch and his 12 years in City Hall, there's no question that he's among the most influential people to ever serve as mayor of New York.

When Koch was elected in 1977, the city was at its lowest point, having gone through a crime-infested decade of near bankruptcy and overarching urban decay. By 1989, when he lost out on his bid for a fourth term, NYC had undergone a renaissance that laid the groundwork for the commercialized megalith the city is today.

That indisputable fact drives "Koch," longtime reporter Neil Barsky's documentary about Hizzoner. In the fashion of the best non-fiction movies centered on New York history, the film is as much a portrait of an era as a particular subject. At its best, "Koch" offers a thoughtful look at the fundamental reasons a down-and-out city was primed to embrace this larger-than-life cheerleader for all things Gotham.

It's an admiring portrait of the now 88-year-old, who has been hospitalized for recurring fluid retention and anemia since Monday. But it's not hagiography, and Barsky takes great pains to address some of the biggest controversies of Koch's term, including his handling of the AIDS crisis, the patronage scandals and the closing of Harlem's Sydenham Hospital in 1980. The question of the ex-mayor's sexual orientation is addressed, too.

Koch has his enemies, his detractors, who argue that his administration favored development over social justice. There's plenty in the man's record that can be picked apart, and you could certainly make another movie with the same title that comprehensively did so.

But no matter what, this city will never forget him. As the Abyssinian Baptist Church's Dr. Calvin O. Butts III puts it on camera: "David Dinkins was the grandfather. The nicest man. Smart man. Need to be a little tougher for New York. Giuliani: There was no love in him. Nobody ever felt like Giuliani really cared about anybody. Michael Bloomberg: Good manager, cool. But Ed Koch, for my generation and those of us who knew him, he's the mayor."

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