Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Citizen Koch Movie Review

My personal politics are irrelevant when it comes to evaluating a movie. At least I do my best to make it so. Of course sometimes you can’t help it. Doing my best to look objectively at Citizen Koch, the documentary by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin about the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission on American politics, I would say this is a film that fails to thoroughly examine the very issue it claims to be about.

The Citizens United case, as you may or may not know, was the 5-4 split decision that essentially ruled that, when it comes to campaign contributions, corporations are individuals protected by the First Amendment. The result of that decision has been the funneling of enormous amount of corporate money into political actions.


The targets of the filmmakers’ ire are the Koch brothers – two billionaire businessmen whose money has gone into so-called Super PACs to support candidates they like. This documentary also hates the Tea Party movement, which was a big deal at the time this film was being made in 2011 – 2012, but by the time it saw mainstream release in 2014, the Tea Party movement was nearly a still life. Relevancy doesn’t seem to be one of their great concerns.

What appears at first to be a documentary designed to explore how Citizens United has grown to affect all areas of politics nationwide settles into a very localized fight in Wisconsin to recall governor Scott Walker. He was elected (with the help of corporate money via the Koch brothers) and failed to fulfill some of his campaign promises. He drew the displeasure of many state employees when he sought the dismantling of the public unions. This led to a grassroots movement to gather the 540,000 signatures necessary to recall him for a fresh election.

Deal and Lessin put their camera and a lot of attention on four Wisconsin residents who are self-identified Republicans, some of whom voted for Walker and are all dispirited, disillusioned, and disappointed by his practices. They are all public employees whose jobs, salary, and union protections are threatened by Walker’s proposed legislation. Getting personal stories, anecdotes, and opinions makes for good propagandizing, but it’s hardly journalism or documentary filmmaking. If the intent is to illustrate how Walker’s policy objectives don’t even square with Republican voters, show us some polling numbers. Sure, they got their signatures and their recall vote, but then Walker won with 53 percent.

The thesis of Citizen Koch, presented as self-evidently true, is that Walker was unpopular and had no business leading the state, and he only wont the recall vote because of all the money pumped in thanks to the activist conservative Supreme Court. Now, I’ll be the first raising my hand to admit that money helps a great deal in an election, but it doesn’t help only one party. What Citizen Koch fails to do is even give us the name of Walker’s opponent in that recall election! Is the opposition candidate so unimportant to the filmmakers? This tells me that their thinking is that Walker should have lost the election regardless of his opponent’s credentials, opinions, popularity, experience, and platform simply because a lot of (at least the four featured in the film) public employees wanted him out.

Citizen Koch fails as documentary on a fundamental level. It is not a call to action because this is mostly old and fading news. It’s hardly educational because it doesn’t bother giving any facts about how the Citizens United decision has affected outcomes in other elections outside Wisconsin. It fails to explain why corporations’ money exclusively helps the Republican Party. Deal and Lessin don’t even paint a very accurate picture of exactly what Citizens United was about. They make it seem like corporations are now allowed to directly contribute to campaign fundraising efforts, which they still can’t do. This decision was specifically about who can pay for private advertising on TV and radio within a certain time period around the election. You won’t learn that from this documentary, though.

This is just preaching to the choir. This documentary is not going to reach the people on the far right. It’s not going to convince more moderate Republicans because it plays like straight up liberal propaganda. It’s really just a big exercise in smug preening and mental masturbation.

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