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By Joe Bendel. In 1981, the New York Republican Party supported lifelong Democrat Ed Koch’s re-election bid. He has since returned the favor, periodically endorsing Republicans like Pres. George W. Bush, Sen. Al D’Amato, Gov. George Pataki, and Andrew Eristoff. Throughout his public life, Mayor Koch has been something of a maverick and he is always good for a lively quote. Neil Barsky documents the triumphs and controversies of the iconic mayor in the simply but aptly titled Koch, which opens this Friday in New York.

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If one thing comes through loud and clear in Koch it is the animosity between him and Mario Cuomo. It all harks back to 1977, when the Cuomo mayoral campaign allegedly gave winking approval to the guerrilla campaign urging New Yorkers: “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Shrewdly capturing the center and the right of the electorate, Koch ultimately vanquished Cuomo running as the Liberal Party candidate. However, questions about Koch’s private life would persist. In fact, Barsky’s only real misstep is the inordinate about of time spent on this is-he-or-isn’t-he question.

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For those New York transplants arriving during the Giuliani or Bloomberg eras, Koch is a briskly entertaining primer on the City’s 1970’s and 1980’s history. Recognizable names like Bess Myerson and Donald Manes, the late Queens Borough President, whose corruption scandal also tarnished the Koch administration, are put into full context. There are also plenty of his “how’m I doing?” greatest hits and the frequent media appearances that established a new template for New York mayors.

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Barsky scored top-shelf access to Hizzoner, but the Koch of today comes across a bit sad, clearly uncomfortable with his status as a New York political graybeard-gadfly. Viewers can tell he misses the action.

While Barsky examines his legacy warts-and-all, his documentary will easily convince viewers Koch was the right no-nonsense man for the job, like a pre-Giuliani Giuliani. Koch is funnier, though. Shrewdly, Barsky emphasizes his humor whenever possible. The results, gently prodded along by Mark Degli Antoni’s peppy underscore, are compulsively watchable. One of the most entertaining documentaries of the young year so far, for both political and pop culture junkies, Koch the movie opens this Friday (2/1) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on January 31st, 2012 at 12:18pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Ilan Ramon was the Yoni Netanyahu of his generation. A charismatic military officer, he planned and led the daring 1981 bombing raid on Iraq’s nearly complete nuclear reactor. The son of Holocaust survivors, when chosen to be the first Israeli astronaut, he hoped to use the mission to bring a remarkable true story to the world’s attention. Unfortunately, though, he was assigned to Columbia’s tragic, final 2003 flight. Daniel Cohen documents the man and the history that inspired him in Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope (promo here), which airs tonight on PBS stations nationwide.

Ramon was an ace F-16 pilot. He half expected not to survive the then-controversial Operation Opera. Yet all planes came back unscathed in what quickly came to be considered the most successful Israeli military operation ever. At the time, it was duly, if reluctantly, condemned by the U.S. government. Twenty-two years later, he became the only non-American citizen to win the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

As if the Columbia disaster was not heavy enough, Mission of Hope is also profoundly concerned with the Holocaust. While Ramon was just one generation removed, Joachim “Yoja” Joseph, the senior scientist supervising Israel’s Columbia experiments, had survived Bergen-Belsen as young boy. Thanks to a courageous Rabbi, Joseph had his bar mitzvah in the camp with the aid of a tiny Torah. Knowing his time was short, the Rabbi gave the boy that Torah for safe keeping. Decades later Ramon carried it into space, along with several other surviving concentration camp artifacts.

Astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Although Ramon’s story would seem to be one of bitter irony, Cohen wisely emphasizes the inspirational aspects of his life and mission. Featuring interviews with his widow and commanding officers, as well as candid video footage shot by his Columbia mission comrade Dave Brown, Hope conveys a strong personal sense of Ramon as an individual. To his credit, Cohen is not afraid of idealism or patriotism. Hope reminds viewers of the pride and optimism inspired by the early days of the space program. Appropriately, Cohen does not delve into the causes of the disaster. There are better venues to explore such issues. Instead, he focuses on Ramon and his crewmates.

It is hard to imagine anyone watching Hope without getting a catch in their throats. Frankly, it is rather baffling the film has not screened extensively on the festival circuit before its PBS debut, especially considering Hollywood space booster Tom Hanks’ role as executive producer. Educational and unexpectedly uplifting, Mission of Hope is enthusiastically recommended for general audiences when its screens tonight (1/31) on most PBS outlets, with a rebroadcast of Nova’s Space Shuttle Disaster scheduled to follow.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on January 31st, 2012 at 12:17pm.

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