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Michael David Dunn
When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker stripped state workers of their union rights in 2011, was it simply a classic face-off between labor and management, or a bold political move designed to weaken his party's political opposition? Set against the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy movements, the US Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United, and the 2012 presidential campaign, Citizen Koch documents the consequences for democracy when private interests determine who is elected to deliver public good.Written by
The film launched a kickstarter campaign for distribution after the Independent Television Service (ITVS), a public agency that funds and curates independent documentaries, pulled $150,000 it had previously committed. See more »
A lively but confusing documentary about money in US politics
The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision, a true product of the activist, conservative-dominated Roberts Court, has freed up big corporate money as a direct influence in American politics as never before. We need a documentary about this disastrous change. But while fast-moving and colorful, this new film isn't quite that documentary. Things start off badly with the title, 'Citizen Koch,' more provocative than descriptive. You may think of New York's former mayor, Ed Koch (rhymes with "crotch"). But what's meant is the Koch (rhymes with "poke") brothers, the ga-zilllionaire right-wing siblings (plural, not singular) whose exercise of vast campaign-buying powers is a prime example of Citizens United's effect.
Is this movie about the Koch brothers? Not quite, and certainly not exclusively. It throws a lot of things at us right off, as if we're supposed to guess what it's about. First there's Sarah Palin touting the Tea Party in Wisconsin. Jump to Obama being sworn in a year and a half later in Washington after winning the election. Next, we glimpse virulent, hateful reactions from right wing media to the new administration and its leader. Then, we see David Koch of Koch Industries address an audience about his and his brother Charles's Americans for Prosperity.
Is 'Citizen Koch' about the Supreme Court decision, or the Tea Party and Obama opposition, or about the Koch brothers? Yes, it touches on all of those, and more than the Koch brothers, on many very rich donors to promote right-wing candidates. But mainly it winds up being about Tea Party Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin, elected Governor in part through contributions from the Koch brothers (and their like). Walker immediately sets out to destroy pensions and unions in the state. In doing this, he arouses a lot of grass roots Republican, labor, and progressive opposition. They grow so strong, they succeed in mounting an election to recall Walker. This signals a big popular revolt. But then, thanks to massive financial backing, again from the Koch brothers (and others like them), Walker manages to beat the recall vote and stay in office. This is the film's main trajectory.
Whatever all this means for you, what filmmakers Deal and Lessin excel at here is following day-to-day details of electoral politics and citizens' protests, both Tea Party support and grass roots Republican Walker opposition. They do this through tracking a few colorful individuals and scenes on the street, at home, or at work. They follow Wisconsin's opposition to the new Governor through four outraged grassroots Republicans who oppose him: a teacher, prison guard, nurse, plus the nurse's husband, a Harley Davidson repairman first-time voter who vividly comments on the sidelines. The film gives us brief but pungent looks at the lives, views, and political activities of these four people, and this is 'Citizen Koch's' human heart. The film never delves deeply into the activities of the Koch brothers, delineating, rather, a lot of contributions from rich out-of-state donors to the campaign to keep Walker in office.
'Citizen Koch' touches on events that are, in the aggregate, highly significant. But the film's treatment of these events, though lively and fast-moving, suffers from its confusion of focus. It continually seeks to juggle its three balls: Walker's anti-union Tea Party rule; his growing grass roots Republican opposition, and, a dim third in the background, "Citizen"(sic)Koch, the Koch brothers and their use of limitless personal money to save Scott Walker from recall, symbolizing the defeat of the democratic process through paid advertising.
This film has been called "agitprop" but it's really more a collage, the term "agitprop" used because it's fast, loud, and crude, its message and structure not quite clear. For true agitprop, go to America's most famous muckraking filmmaker, Michael Moore. But Moore does this sort of thing so much better that there is no ground for comparison.
Other examples of successful engagé documentaries are Charles Ferguson's devastating 2010 attack on post-Great Recession Wall Street, 'Inside Job'; Ferguson's earlier 2007 'No End in Sight,' about the lack of planning behind the US 2003 invasion of Iraq; Errol Morris Vietnam War deconstruction based on an interview with Robert McNamara, 'The Fog of War,' Alex Gibney's study of post-9/11 cruelty, 'Taxi to the Dark Side;' Adam Curtis' sweeping study of post-9/11 political paranoia, 'The Power of Nightmares'; the team of Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's 'The Corporation' -- the latter, highly relevant to Deal and Lessin's subject matter because it refers to the ruling that corporations have rights like people. These are all documentaries that take a clear stand and support it with rigorous logic, strong structure, and rich documentation. Good as they all are, though, they can't match the effect Michael Moore had with 'Bowling for Columbine' and 'Sicko.' Making a good political documentary may involve agitprop, but it also requires a lot of work, plus passion, a willingness to be provocative, good and lucky timing, a marshaling of the facts, and great organizational skill. These do not seem entirely present in 'Citizen Koch'. It's a documentary that presents material well worth knowing about, but like too many films of this sort, it seems in some ways a bit of a mess. Some of its quick portraits of the grassroots folks are priceless, however.
'Citizen Koch' was to have been presented on PBS but was scuttled by the network, reportedly due to pressure from rich sponsors, including the Koch brothers. It lost ITVS funding, robbing it of its "Independent Lens" series slot. This brought protests in New York. The filmmakers launched a Kickstarter campaign instead which has been successful, and the film's theatrical release rolls out through dozens of cities till early September 2014.
'Citizen Koch' debuted at Sundance January 2013, also showed at DOC NYC that November. It was was released at IFC Center, NYC 6 June 2014 to mixed reviews (Metacritic average 53%).
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