“How’m I doing?” Even if you didn’t grow up in New York in the late ’70s and ’80s, you’d probably recognize Ed Koch’s mayoral mantra—on TV talk shows, hosting Saturday Night Live, on book tours for his best-selling memoir, Mayor. But if Neil Barsky’s documentary on the politician reminds viewers of one thing, it’s that Koch’s story is inextricably linked with the city he led for three terms and 12 years. Abundant archival footage shows him finding his political voice in ’60s Greenwich Village; campaigning for mayor against the social turmoil of ’77; saving NYC from bankruptcy and transforming the outer-borough housing situation; becoming a celebrity in the go-go ’80s and then being tarnished with guilt-by-association government scandals as that decade ended. The film doubles as a history lesson about, and time capsule of, a transformed metropolis.
He was also a highly divisive figure, of course, and while Koch doesn’t shy away from the man’s political low points—closing Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital and alienating the black community, ignoring the AIDS epidemic even as he passed a gay-rights measure—it doesn’t delve too deeply into them either. There’s a difference between acknowledging controversial actions and truly exploring how they fit into Koch’s overall legacy, and Barsky would much rather flatter than push his subject. The result is neither blind idolatry nor a definitive portrait; just a major missed opportunity content to loiter in the middle of the road.
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