For three consecutive terms, Ed Koch was mayor of what is inarguably the most important city on Earth. To underscore the magnificence of this job, this doc opens with aerial shots of the New York City cosmopolis in all its vastness and architectural beauty. Meanwhile, Koch declares off camera how he felt touching down there for the first time and knowing that this city was “his.” Later, a humbler Koch discusses his unsuccessful attempt at a fourth term — he was beaten by David Dinkins in — and comments that all he ever wanted to be was “relevant.” Watching this emotionally over-larded (yet somewhat evenhanded) film chronicling his accomplishments and shortcomings, we’re left with one assurance: Koch was more king of the city than mere man of accomplishment.
His reign came during the city’s beleaguered years. It was the end of the 1970s and then-president Gerald Ford was antagonistic to the city; drug and economic woes were plaguing Manhattan. Koch, the filmmakers argue, was clearly the chief catalyst to its miraculous recovery. (Rudy Giuliani usually gets credited as the city’s savior.) Koch’s achievement, which one politico compares to the building of the pyramids, was the rebirth of the bombed-out Bronx, and massive low income housing construction. The film records his trials by fire, too. His seeming indifference to the spreading AIDS epidemic, his own sexual identity, and his relationship to massive public trust scandals are offered as preludes to his final election defeat.
Of course, the filmmakers did not know Koch would die just days after the film was released, adding an accidentally brighter luster to the story they tell. Yet, in a way, like so much that happened, it was a perfect stroke for a man used to riding in on a high horse. At film’s end we see the man who just wanted to be relevant driving near the Statesboro Bridge, which had just been renamed for him. We hear the retired mayor quip, “My bridge doesn’t have enough lights on it.” It’s nice human touch to a sanctifying portrait. It’ll be impossible to go into the city without thinking about the man named Koch.