There’s a telling moment in “Citizen Koch” where an elderly interviewee at a Tea Party rally sponsored by Americans for Prosperity cites a falsely inflated number of how much money labor unions have funneled into the effort to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. When the interviewer informs the man of the millions that AFP backers and billionaires Charles and David Koch have given to support Walker, the man asks where the interviewer got her facts.
She responds, “I read it in the paper,” and he immediately dismisses the notion, flashing an “I Don’t Believe the Liberal Media” bumper sticker and declaring that progressive George Soros owns the three major networks.
If hard-core conservatives have reached the point where they no longer believe anything outside of the Fox News-Breitbart-Glenn Beck bubble, then who, exactly, is the target audience for a movie like “Citizen Koch”? While the provocative title promises a film that will reveal new information about the infamous Koch brothers, there’s little on display here that regular viewers of “The Rachel Maddow Show” won’t have already heard.
Their father, Koch Industries founder Fred Koch, was a founder of the right-wing and fervently anti-Communist John Birch Society. (The film begins with a provocative quote from Fred: “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America.”) Koch Industries is one of the nation’s largest privately held companies, with interests in oil, chemicals, fertilizer, and any number of other concerns. And Charles and Fred Koch have spent a great deal of money on Astroturf groups (they’re like grassroots organizations, only artificial) like Americans for Prosperity and backing corporatist candidates from coast to coast.
This is all interesting, but none of it is news. Where directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (“Trouble the Water”) find their most compelling story isn’t in the Koch Industries boardroom but among the working people of the state of Wisconsin.
“Citizen Koch” walks us through the landmark Citizens United decision, wherein the Supreme Court decided that unlimited anonymous political contributions were a really good idea. (And if you don’t already know about the direct financial ties between the Tea Party movement and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, Deal and Lessin offer a quick primer.)
The subsequent influx of secret corporate money into politics led to the election of a number of corporatist candidates, and the film focuses on Scott Walker, who confounded even some of his supporters by attacking unions and stripping them of their collective bargaining powers after becoming governor of Wisconsin.
The film introduces us to schoolteachers, nurses and prison guards left in the lurch by Walker’s decision, and their stories are fascinating both on a personal level (they’re hardly sitting pretty, despite the efforts of Americans for Prosperity and other Koch-backed groups to portray union members as fat cats living on the dole) and a political one (we meet many Republican Wisconsinites who, before the ascendance of Walker, had thought membership in both the GOP and a labor union was compatible).
There’s definitely a story to be told and a message to be shared here, but “Citizen Koch” never stirs the emotions. It’s quite possible that there are people in the political center and even the right that could find their hearts and minds won over by the movie’s exploration of how money is corrupting the American political process (on both sides and in both parties). The film’s downbeat ending, however, feels less a rallying cry to fight back and more like a suggestion that we’re already screwed.
If, as various pundits have pointed out, the real triumph of the Tea Party is getting middle- and working-class citizens to vote against their own best interests, it’s going to take a documentary more passionate and more revelatory than this one to make that point. The old guy with the “Liberal Media” bumper sticker has already put his fingers in his ears and walked away.