Whitewashing Koch 


Directed by Neil Barsky

Taking office in the wake of New York’s mid-70s fiscal crisis, Mayor Ed Koch made the developmentalist policies put into place by the Municipal Assistance Corporation and the Emergency Financial Control Board the top priority of his own (and every subsequent) mayoral administration: he slashed social spending in the name of fiscal responsibility while stuffing the pockets of private businesses via tax breaks, subsidies, and public-private partnerships. A one-time liberal congressman from a West Village district, Koch transformed himself into a third-way Clintonian avant la lettre—along the way race-baiting the city’s old liberal coalition to death—and transformed New York from the nation’s most generous provider of social welfare to the city with its highest income inequality.

You won’t learn any of this in Koch, a new documentary from first-time director and avowed Koch acolyte Neil Barsky, whose background as a Wall Street Journal reporter and hedge-fund manager make him a natural ally. But while we hear plenty of the usual cant about how the mayor “saved” the city, Barsky’s film is too insubstantial to even serve up the repulsive hagiography promised, instead offering little more than drive-by history and blandly balanced gestures toward analysis set to hackneyed, era-setting archival footage and music cues.

Arriving early in the year of a mayoral election that is likely to be dominated by Christine Quinn, the latest in a long line of Koch avatars, the film could have performed an urgent, necessary investigation of recent NYC history. Seduced by the garrulous, publicity-ravenous mayor’s colorful demeanor, Koch instead becomes another platform for his bullying theatrics, and the kind of treacly character study that made up too much contemporaneous coverage of the mayor’s three terms in office, and makes up too many of today’s documentaries.

Opens February 1

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