The warping effect on public opinion and policy of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which among other things gave corporations and unions leeway to make unlimited political contributions anonymously, is vividly displayed in “Citizen Koch.” But despite the issue’s importance, this docu from Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (“Trouble the Water”) is less potent than it should be. Snaking through a tangle of interlocking ideas, threads and events, it never quite finds a unified focus. Nonetheless, limited theatrical is possible, with broadcast sales more certain.
The 2010 decision, approved 5-4 by a Court whose balance had shifted due to appointments by President George W. Bush, seemed to many an invitation to big money to “buy” elections and influence policy. The docu makes the case that the gradual decline of unions and rise in conservative corporate political influence over the past few decades ensured that the effect of the Citizens United ruling would be lopsided.
Seen as masterminds behind these stealthy yet vast changes in the U.S. political landscape are the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, who managed to keep a low profile until recently. They’ve spent decades designing, funding and implementing a conservative makeover of how American government works, whether through high-security biannual summits or purportedly grassroots orgs like the Tea Party and Americans for Prosperity.
The Kochs are assuredly worth a feature documentary all their own (and indeed were the subject of Robert Greenwald’s 2012 docu “Koch Brothers Exposed”). But “Citizen Koch” also takes on elections nationwide as it follows the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer, a folky Louisianan whose outspoken opposition to corporate influence-peddling gets him excluded from every nationally televised GOP debate; and at the state level in Wisconsin, featuring several working-class Wisconsin Republicans bitterly disillusioned after newly elected Gov. Scott Walker quickly pushes through anti-union legislation.
The pic spends time going into some of the details in Wisconsin, where Walker-supported laws deprived public-sector employees — from teachers to nurses to prison guards — of their collective bargaining rights.
Within two years of Walker’s election, relevant union membership had been halved, with many forced from public service due to reductions in pay and benefits during a state budget crisis that opponents claim Walker artificially created via unwarranted tax cuts. The changes led to cheaper new hires, and meant that the hobbled unions would be far less able to make political contributions. When widespread outrage forced a recall election on Walker, he won by a slim majority, having outspent the opposition 8-to-1, greatly assisted by anonymous out-of-state corporate donors enabled by Citizens United.
The docu presents Wisconsin as a testing ground for this kind of divide-and-conquer strategy. Michigan and other states quickly followed suit, with similar anti-union, “right to work,” and voter-ID bills favored by those like the Koches, who want to maximize profits, reduce employee wages and discourage poor and minority voters.
Some material in the docu feels repetitive or unnecessary. But the main problem is that “Citizen Koch” simply juggles too many themes and narratives to cohere. The result is largely compelling in the moment, but unsatisfying as a whole.
Tech and design elements are solidly pro, with brisk pacing, even if the sense of information overload makes the pic seem longer than it is.