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Movie Review

‘Citizen Koch’ preaches to the converted

The film focuses on the election of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (above), subsequent protests (top), and the Koch brothers’ role in Walker prevailing in a recall election.

Variance Films/Elsewhere Films

The film focuses on the election of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (pictured), subsequent protests, and the Koch brothers’ role in Walker prevailing in a recall election.

Last year public television took a credibility hit and, some say, provided a glimpse into the workings of money, power, politics, and the media by pulling the plug on “Citizen Koch,” a documentary about Charles and David Koch and how their corporation has manipulated US elections. David Koch is a contributor to and trustee of WNET and WGBH.

Ironically, though, the brothers may have been annoyed not by the exposure of how much influence their contributions have had on the democratic process, but how little.

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That’s probably not what writer-directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin intended with their chronicle of the growing power of corporate campaign contributions that were stirred to action by the election of Barack Obama in 2008, unleashed in full by the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision in 2010, and triumphed in that year’s midterm elections. Those contributions proved ineffectual in 2012, when Obama won a second term. Far more than the film’s one-sided rehashing of that history and its condemnation of the corruption of the fundamental American principle of free elections, such a reminder of the Kochs’ failure must be especially galling to the billionaire power brokers.

For the rest of us, “Citizen Koch” demonstrates once again how piles of anonymous money pour into Republican and, to a lesser extent, Democratic campaign coffers (that “Citizen” glosses over the latter is an instance of its lack of objectivity) and that the coming midterm elections will probably be decided by whoever spends the most. Or by those so disgusted or apathetic that they choose not to vote.

Deal and Lessin wisely choose to narrow their focus to the 2010 gubernatorial melodrama in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker won the election by promising to balance the budget and cut spending. When he proceeded to give tax breaks to the wealthy and started busting unions, beginning with police, firefighters, and teachers, many felt betrayed. A million signatures were collected to force a recall election on June 5, 2012, but bolstered by millions from Koch and corporate-funded groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Walker prevailed.

To supplement their phalanx of spokesmen in covering this campaign, the filmmakers cleverly profile individual, disillusioned, formerly loyal Republicans — a biker couple, a right-to-lifer, a corrections officer, and a retired Air Force officer — who turn their anger into anti-Walker activism. These portraits might gratify liberals and Democrats, but I can only imagine how annoying this tactic must be for those Republicans with different opinions, especially when their point of view has been reduced to clownish Tea Party rallies and sound bites from Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, and Fox News.

In other words, “Citizen Koch” is preaching to the choir. Which might not be a pointless exercise, seeing how the choir failed to show up for the last midterm election in 2010, and might need extra motivation not to repeat that mistake this November.

The official trailer:

More coverage:

- Wis. Governor Scott Walker part of ‘criminal scheme,’ prosecutors say

- Koch brothers targeting fair bankruptcy deal in Detroit (6/2)

- Joan Vennochi: The two David Kochs (10/10/13)

- David Koch funds day care at MIT (10/4/13)

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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