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Bittersweet biopic of late NYC mayor

“Koch”

Excellent (4 stars)

Rated

Running time: 95 minutes

Distributor: Zeitgeist Films

Ed Koch (1924-2013) was the mayor of New York from 1978 to 1989, a three-term tenure over the course of which the city was beset by everything from racial strife to urban decay to the AIDS epidemic. To some, a feisty leader like Koch was precisely the right remedy for that mix of urban maladies. To others, he was simply too divisive a figure to forge a diverse coalition representative of every ethnicity.

To his credit, Koch did clean up Times Square and bring the city back from the brink of bankruptcy, even if he did irreversibly alienate the black community ab initio by closing Sydenham Hospital in Harlem right after entering office. That controversial move motivated Calvin Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, to say: “He’s worse than a racist. He’s an opportunist!”

Ever the optimist, Koch was nevertheless fond of always asking his constituents: “How’m I doing?” Although the feedback he received was generally positive, another African-American detractor, Reverend Tim Mitchell was prompted to respond, “You’re not doing well, you’re racist, and the people know it!”

So unfolds “Koch,” a warts-and-all documentary directed by Neil Barsky.

Overall, the movie might strike the viewer as a bit of a hatchet job, but that’s only because it opened in theaters on the very day he passed away. And when somebody dies, that’s a time for obituaries, which tend to focus on the positive, not on “the evil that men do.”

Therefore, fans of the film’s recently-deceased subject might be distressed to see their beloved hero posthumously pilloried. For, the tough-talking politician frequently takes it on the chin here, from the gay slurs “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo!,” which surfaced during the 1977 campaign to the allegations of corruption, which sank his futile attempt to win a fourth term in office.

At one juncture, when asked his sexual preference, Koch sort of loses it, responding, “It’s none of your [bleeping] business!” To deflect rumors from spreading, especially after a longtime associate, Richard Nathan, claimed to be his spurned lover, he began making plenty of public appearances with Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America on his arm.

Ultimately, the coup de grace was delivered to Koch’s career when many Democratic machine bosses holding powerful positions in his administration were exposed as crooks. This forced the voters to face the fact that the man who had originally run as a reformer on a platform promising to clean up City Hall had himself tragically morphed like the characters in Orwell’s “Animal Farm” into just another hack politician with his hands in the cookie jar.

The rise and fall from grace of a good Jewish boy gone bad who ostensibly sold out the Big Apple but never summoned up the courage to come out of the closet.

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