I want to hate the Koch brothers. You want to hate the Koch brothers. Yet this clumsy advocacy doc makes it hard to do. Perhaps you recall reading how directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin lost their public-TV funding for the project, then resorted to Kickstarter, because David Koch is on the board of two PBS affiliate stations. Editorial oversight may also have been lost, and one wonders how much Deal and Lessin have tailored Citizen Koch to suit their citizen financiers, in the manner of Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed, etc.). In its tone and construction, Citizen Koch is well below PBS broadcast standards. I’ve seen better screeds stapled on telephone poles.
Most damningly, it’s old news. Much of the film is set in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker seeks to break public-sector unions, then fights against a voter recall effort. He prevailed in both battles (aided by corporate money), as we know, because they took place over two years ago and were extensively covered by NPR, The New York Times, and company. Given the amount of excellent reporting done by those annals (and The New Yorker’s Jane Meyer, in particular, on the Kochs and Citizens United ), Citizen Koch’s roster of talking heads is hugely disappointing: a few bloggers and activists, junior-varsity pundits, and the doomed 2012 Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer—the Dennis Kucinich of the right—whom they treat like an oracle. Money corrupts politics, he says. No, really?
Their dependence on old news clips and the occasional press conference—Tim Phillips of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity is particularly odious—probably reflects the filmmakers’ budget constraints. Smarter, better-sourced documentaries from the likes of Alex Gibney or Charles Ferguson take time and money. It’s cheaper to harvest our easy scorn—for Sarah Palin, the John Birch Society, Samuel Alito, etc.—and set it to that ominous synthesizer drone we know from TV campaign ads. The subject here may not demand balance, but it requires deeper insight.
As with their 2008 doc Trouble the Water, about Hurricane Katrina, Deal and Lessin do better with individual stories than the big picture. “I don’t get where regular people have become the bad guy,” says a Wisconsin prison guard about the barrage of TV ads implying his union (and others) have bankrupted the state. Well, we know where the money came from for those ads. (Gov. Walker is presently being charged by state prosecutors on that subject.) What’s more disturbing, when the filmmakers ask a Wisconsin Tea Party supporter why he believes unions are outspending corporations in that state (the opposite was true, at a ratio of roughly 8:1), is his blithe denial of the facts. He, too, is regular people. And he’s proudly voting against his economic self-interest in the name of “freedom,” just as the Kochs intended. (Note: Deal will conduct a Q&A following the 7 p.m. Sat. screening.)
Runs Fri., June 27–Thurs., July 3 at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated. 90 minutes.