Film Review: Citizen Koch

This moody, wandering and controversial activist documentary argues that right-wing billionaires David and Charles Koch’s lavishly funded fight to demolish labor protections and campaign-finance limits isn’t just dangerous to American democ

This feature-length assault on the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers from Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) premiered at Sundance in 2013. Not long after, controversy swirled around charges that PBS reportedly pulled financing from the film and refused to broadcast it in order to not offend board member and large donor David Koch. If true, that story would fit right in with the profile that the film paints of the Kochs as secretive, deep-background conservative organizers who work their anti-government voodoo in the shadows and are the greatest threat to American democracy since the British burned the White House. Though given the film’s shaky way of presenting its case, viewers may not realize exactly how the Koch brothers are such a threat.

Citizen Koch has passion aplenty, but it begins as a well-starched and solidly structured argument about the dismantling of campaign-finance reform. It’s smartly and entertainingly told in the by-now standard format of attack documentaries: stringing together television news footage for a pulse-pounding narrative and cutting away to talking-head interviews for context. Instead of jumping all over the Kochs from the start, the filmmakers lay out out how the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for increased corporate donations to political advocacy groups. Former Wisconsin senator and campaign finance reformer Russ Feingold calls the decision a “huge power grab” by corporations, who were now freer to support or attack politicians of their choosing.

Instead of continuing to press the case on the Koch brothers themselves, though familiar tidbits about their secret gatherings and dark strategies are scattered throughout, the filmmakers mostly expend their energies elsewhere. It’s a style that might amplify the emotions of the case but dilutes its argument. A quick pivot to Wisconsin tells the story of the battle over Republican Scott Walker’s campaign to eliminate public unions’ collective-bargaining rights. It’s theoretically a smart location to illustrate how the work of groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity—something of a piggy bank for Tea Party groups and the politicians they like—plays out on the ground. But time and again, the filmmakers get bogged down instead in telling the story of the campaign to recall Walker. Like too many documentaries of this brand, it can feel more interested in presenting inspiring voices and dire warnings than telling a story.

This should have been an easy one. The Koch brothers are tailor-made for liberal outrage. They make billions of dollars from environmentally devastating industries like fossil fuels and lumber and use their largesse to back politicians and groups who espouse their tax-cutting, anti-regulation policies (which, of course, benefit the likes of them). Walker, who tends to pick up legislation straight from Koch-funded think tanks, is presented here as little more than their lackey. The Wisconsin stretches are filled with saddened testimony from Republicans who felt betrayed by Walker after he started attacking the unions.

For a time, the mixture works. Citizen Koch uses a tone that is initially more mournful than outraged, making it play as something of a requiem for democracy. It’s a simple story, with the Koch brothers as the obvious bad guys. But Deal and Lessin get too enamored of their on-the-ground reporting and lose sight of their main prey. It’s all well and good to include footage of Tea Party rallies with racist signs and angry people in tri-corner hats yelling about unions or a John Bircher (whose group was started by the Kochs’ father) lecturing people about the threats they face from socialists, blacks and Jews. But none of this feeds into what should have been an easy argument about how corporate money is corrupting politics in the post-Citizens United era. A long digression on the film’s Don Quixote figure, former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer—a Republican who ran on an anti-corporate message in the 2012 Presidential election and was shut out of the debates—doesn’t add to much of anything but the running time.

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