Having ruined the reputations of ITVS and PBS, “Citizen Koch,” a doleful review of the state of the union, reappears on the scene after a tumultuous struggle with funding and a tweaking post-2013 Sundance. David Koch and Charles Koch, the reactionary billionaire activists and ostensible subjects, are almost beside the point. Rather, the title of the film by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (“Trouble the Water”) reflects the very traditional values the Kochs seem to want revived and restored: In ancient times, being a “citizen” is what differentiated one from being a slave. What Lessin and Deal see looming on the horizon is a world of one-percenter citizens, and the rest of us. ("Citizen Koch" will screen as part of DOC NYC on November 15.)
It would be easier to wax both righteous and indignant about the co-opting of democracy that the movie portrays -- après the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010 – if it were only portrayed via a more succinct and focused movie. Deal and Lessin spend most of their time in Wisconsin where the Koch brothers’ lapdog Scott Walker was elected governor and immediately launched an attack on labor and voting rights. Anyone who knows anything about the current state of American politics – the audience for “Citizen Koch,” in other words – knows the outcome of the Wisconsin battle and several battles to come. The film feels stale, as do its observations about what is happening to further polarize the country now that the Supreme Court – as the film observes, a body with very little credibility, vis-à-vis judicial ethics – has removed the restraints from corporate campaign spending and opened the door to indirect special-interest financing of corporation darlings like Walker.
“Citizen Koch” also spends an inordinate amount of time on Buddy Roemer, the doomed-and-he-knows-it presidential candidate of 2012, who is a good example of how money buys media attention – Roemer gets almost none – as well as a place on the televised-debate platform. But once the point is made, the film really ought to move on. “CK” also dwells on several dubious examples of the Wisconsin electorate – the “hairy biker” who never votes, and keeps a Confederate flag on the wall of his bike shop, for instance – who suddenly woke up once Walker started his shenanigans.
If Lessin and Deal wanted to make a movie about how Americans vote against their best interest -- and are uninformed, ill-educated and allow themselves to be swayed by fear-mongering and one-issue politics -- they have plenty of examples. “I always thought the Republican Party was the party of the people, the common man,” says one woman, who apparently hasn’t paid attention since the Taft administration. The movie spends way too much time on people like this, and hardly any on the gangsters promoting voter ID laws, union busting and promoting the myth that labor is a threat to democracy: Individual donors opposing Walker’s recall outspent entire labor unions ten to one. THAT is a threat to democracy.
“Citizen Koch” addresses it all, but not with a great deal of finesse.