Movie News & Reviews

July 10, 2014

‘Citizen Koch’ filmmakers take a swing and almost miss: 2.5 stars

The film suffers from a serious “mission creep” that undercuts its purpose. It starts out about the Koch brothers, and then settles for much of its length on the battleground of Wisconsin.

Let’s hold this truth to be self-evident: Nobody ever changed his or her deep-rooted political beliefs by watching a political documentary. Ever.

Such films, from the Jerry Falwell-backed attacks on the Clintons to Michael Moore’s jeremiads, to “Hillary: The Movie” that led to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, to “Citizen Koch,” a film about that ruling’s consequences, preach to the choir. They reinforce what people already believe.

“Citizen Koch” started out as an expose of the power of the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, Charles and David — Wichita billionaires who inherited a $100 billion company and the John Birch Society politics of their father. This film, about how the Kochs have become the poster boys (for the left) for the rich subverting American politics with secret donations to push their not-so-secret agenda, was to have aired on PBS. But the Kochs are big PBS donors, or so the rumor goes, so PBS bailed out.

To be fair, the film also suffers from a serious “mission creep” that undercuts its purpose. It starts out about the Kochs and then settles for much of its length on the battleground of Wisconsin. That’s where Koch-backed tea party conservatives seized power and used the legislature to start a national crusade to break the backs of unions, the one liberal money bloc with the cash to at least compete with the huge conservative ATMs that the Citizens United ruling unleashed.

Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal try to pack the myriad arguments against that Supreme Court ruling, and legions of people from both sides of America’s political aisle who saw it as a disenfranchising disaster, into 90 minutes. But they get lost in Wisconsin.

It’s easy to see why. This came across, in 2011-12, as a test case. Would voters — public employees and other constituencies — be able to recall a governor who made what most called a naked “power grab” to break the state’s unions, and by extension, subvert the will of a Democratic-majority state? The answer, for those who don’t remember, was no.

As Dee Ives, a public employee who does home health care for elderly veterans, puts it: “The rest of America? They’re coming for you next.”

Deal and Lessin contrast the small-money, door-to-door efforts of the underfunded recall backers with the gargantuan checks written by the Kochs and others that flooded the TV airwaves and brought in busloads of drawling out-of-state phone bank activists to keep Scott Walker governor. Unions lost, and memberships plunged.

The filmmakers contrast the populist rallies of both sides of this heated debate that seemed like a crucible for the future of American politics. They highlight the racist, anti-Semitic rhetoric of Koch-backed tea party enthusiasts. When a John Birch Society “instructor” speaks to aged, rural white voters in Wisconsin, none of them seem to notice his thought-thread about where “the Jews” that Hitler chased out of Germany ended up — “Here, as the teachers of today’s teachers.”

This was, after all, the home state of Joseph McCarthy.

Lessin and Deal don’t make this an activist film, despite the fact that their subject limits the audience it will appeal to. Such films are usually hopeful. This one is relentlessly downbeat about this threat to democracy, letting failed GOP presidential candidate and former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer sound the soberest alarm:

“Listen to me, America. You’re unimportant. Because you don’t bring a check. … They’ve stolen your government.”

It’s too much to stuff into 90 minutes, from the concerted GOP voter ID effort to suppress voter turnout nationwide to “limit the electorate to the benefit of big business,” to union busting, to solidifying the conservative grasp of the Supreme Court so that this permanent, monied minority can continue to call the shots.

And by reaching for all those threads of this right-wing web, “Citizen Koch” loses track of the Big Oil/big pipeline billionaires who finance elections, underwrite global warming denial and stand to gain even more in another low-turnout election this fall — the Kochs.

Deal and Lessin might have been better served finding a couple of Koch expert witnesses to anchor the film and tie all these issues together. As it is, “Citizen” is a sermon that may have the choir shaking its heads, not singing along.

(At the Tivoli.)


2.5 stars

Not rated | Time: 1:29

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