‘Citizen Koch’ movie review, by Michael O’Sullivan, Washinton Post, June 20,2014
The chief lament articulated in “Citizen Koch” — that the American democratic process has been corrupted by big money — is only slightly misrepresented by the documentary’s name-checking title. Although the film does single out billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch for backing such conservative advocacy groups as Americans for Prosperity, the brothers are by no means the only villains identified.
In fact, the original title of the movie was simply “Citizen Corp.” — a reference to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations the same rights as private citizens to spend freely (and often secretively) on political ads meant to advance or hinder a particular cause or candidate.
It’s interesting that, after the title was changed, the Independent Television Service — a group that receives some funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and that had initially announced plans to help underwrite the film and get it aired on PBS — unexpectedly canceled those plans. In recent years, public television stations have been a major beneficiary of Koch philanthropy, receiving $23 million from David Koch. This has led to questions about whether ITVS might have been pressured by PBS to disavow an unflattering portrait of a benefactor.
To their credit, Oscar-nominated filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (“Trouble the Water”) go out of their way to appear nonpartisan. Although several people interviewed in the film are on the left end of the political spectrum, the movie is largely structured around the efforts of Republicans — not Democrats — to raise the alarm about unchecked corporate electioneering.
That’s a surprise. And it helps add needed balance.
Much of the film centers on former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer’s long-shot campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Roemer, who made a point of accepting no PAC donations, never gained any traction in the polls, let alone raised much money. He was ultimately shut out of all Republican primary debates. But he scores significant rhetorical points in the film, with his folksy, common-sense complaint about how elections seem to go to the highest bidder these days.
The film’s other main focus is the 2012 recall campaign against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. After Walker, a Republican, tried to eliminate collective bargaining by the state’s public employee unions, he was vilified by some of his former conservative supporters for what is described in the film as union-busting.
Several rank-and-file Republican voters — including a prison guard, a teacher and a nurse — accuse Walker of trying to weaken unions at the behest of such anti-union donors as the Kochs. If you get rid of unions, the reasoning goes, you eliminate one of the largest and most powerful groups supporting Democratic candidates, thereby making it easier for conservatives like the Kochs to advance their agendas.
If you have a shred of idealism left, it’s hard to watch “Citizen Koch” without a mounting sense of despair and outrage over the influence that money has come to wield over modern elections. After watching the film, however, it’s reassuring to remember that sometimes — as in the case of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s recent primary defeat by a poorly funded dark horse — the little guy with an empty wallet can still win.