Movie memorial: Neil Barsky's 'Koch' is a timely portrait of the late NYC mayor


Filmmaker Neil Barsky couldn’t have planned it better. Or shall we say, Ed Koch couldn’t have planned it better. On the day that Barsky’s documentary portrait Koch opened, the former New York City mayor died. Like Tom Sawyer imagining his own funeral, Koch, with his instinct for and enjoyment of publicity, seemed to have had a hand in this marketing coup.

Barsky, a former journalist at The Wall Street Journal making his directing debut, says that the Mayor was generally happy with the film, which he had seen and even discussed at some of the pre-opening screenings around the city. This correspondent was at a screening on the day after Koch died, and it was a sellout on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Judging by the audience’s response to the film, which uses New York of the late 1970s and ’80s as a backdrop—what the director referred to as the years that Koch rescued the city from crime, drugs and near-bankruptcy—it seemed as if many of them had lived through some of the crises the film touches on, such as the transit workers’ strike during which Koch exhorted New Yorkers to hang tough and avoid fare increases by walking to work, and the renovation of the housing projects in the Bronx from rubble to livable. Almost as if the audience were at a press conference or at a sporting event, there was applause at various intervals. But mainly for this middle-class (and somewhat middle-aged) crowd, they were in thrall to the witty persona of the irrepressible, quintessential and in-your-face New Yorker.

After the screening, Barsky spoke about his motivation for making the film in an unusually unguarded Q&A. Like a number of documentary filmmakers these days, he said his original inspiration for making the film was to answer a personal question. He said he grew up in New York, and that he always wondered about the shift that had taken place in the city, when it had been on the verge of every kind of disaster and many residents fled to the suburbs. Barsky said he had come to identify the 1980s as a kind of time fulcrum when the city changed from the place where a newspaper headline screamed out “Ford to City: Drop Dead” (when prior mayor Abe Beame asked for the city to be bailed out) to a thriving metropolis everyone wanted to visit or live in.

“When I decided to become a documentary filmmaker, it was in part to understand that. But it turned out to be two films really, one about the City of New York, and one about the Mayor.” Koch, more than Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Barsky asserted, was the first fiscal conservative who was also a social liberal. Indeed, the film has footage of Koch going to Washington, DC, not to ask for a “handout” but a loan on which the city ultimately made good, starting an economic revival, the fruits of which we now see.

“The reason I chose the documentary form,” Barsky explained, “is that though I’ve been a journalist for most of my life, journalism is in disarray. So I decided this would be another way to go.” The money to make the film came from the director himself, though he at first skirted the question by saying “I am the executive producer.” It took over two years to make the movie, and Koch gave full access to his daily activities. But the director observed that at times it was frustrating to get fresh-seeming quotes from the Mayor. “He had used some of these responses so many times, they were almost too polished. And of course he was a consummate performer.”

Audience members asked why Koch’s reaction to 9/11 was not addressed, nor how Koch felt about Donald Trump as a politician. Barsky said he didn’t want the structure of the film to go askew with topics which were in themselves upsetting or controversial. He did take full credit for the concept of shifting back and forth between new footage of the elderly Koch to a straightforward chronology of his life and career. But he credited his editor, Juliet Weber, with making the transitions seamless. For footage of historical events, and even of Koch’s past as a young man growing up in nearby Newark, New Jersey, Barsky said he used “professional archivists.”

Barsky added that he was never able to find any photos or footage of the infamous sign with the slogan “Vote for Cuomo, not the Homo,” which was one of the sticking points of the animosity between Koch and the Cuomo family—particularly Andrew Cuomo, who was running the campaign for his father Mario’s race against Koch. Barsky laughed and asked the audience if there was anyone who had even a facsimile of the poster, and if so, to give him a call. The movie has scenes in which Koch professes at least a partial reconciliation with the Cuomo clan, but we now know that—forbidden for use until after his death, as part of an agreement to be interviewed by The New York Times—he still had blunt words for the current governor of New York State.

“The Mayor liked the film,” Barsky stated. “First of all, it’s about him. Though he didn’t approve of the sequence where he is shown going home alone. He didn’t like being seen as vulnerable.”

Released by Zeitgeist Films, Koch continues to open across the country this March. The Los Angeles premiere is scheduled for March 1.