"Citizen Koch" filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin.
A protester holds a sign that we suspect well see a lot more of in the future in a scene from "Citizen Koch."
By Barry Paris / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Special today! Governorships: $5 million to $10 million. House seats: $15 million to $20 million. Senate seats: $25 million to $40 million! And it’s not just a limited one-time offer — the sales are ongoing. Corporate satisfaction guaranteed.
That, according to the “Citizen Koch” documentary at hand, is a result of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, by which the court’s conservative majority opened the floodgates of big-business money to influence American elections with no restriction or obligation even to disclose the source of it.
In her wryly worded dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned the legal notion that the Creator endowed corporations with the same inalienable rights he bestowed on individuals. But the dubious die was cast: Subsequent exercise of vast new campaign-buying powers by the billionaire Koch brothers of Kansas is the most striking example of that ruling’s effect and of its fueling the rise of the Tea Party movement.
'Citizen Koch' movie trailer
A documentary that follows the money behind the rise of the Tea Party.
A definitive documentary on the subject is in order, but this lively, provocative film isn’t really it. The clever title suggests an expose that will reveal new information about the Kochs and their “Americans for Prosperity” PAC. But in fact, it’s a kind of bait-and-switch. The Kochs are the bait.
The switch is to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s election and bold campaign to strip public-service workers of union rights, thus emasculating organized labor and its opposition to his policies in general. “Wisconsin is open for business!” he famously declared — in more ways than one.
“Citizen Koch” opens with the high strident soprano voice of Sarah Palin in snowy Wisconsin, thanking Barack Obama for begetting Mr. Walker’s election and the Tea Party movement in general. She and others summon patriots to resist a president who is “not a U.S. citizen” but “an America-hating Marxist” bent on death panels et al. horrors.
Rating:PG-13 in nature for controversial political material.
Dismantling and privatizing the public sector — and deregulating the private sector — are longtime Koch goals. They were Mr. Walker’s biggest donors, contributing “just” $43,000 personally and “just” $1 million to his gubernatorial campaign fund (the allowable amounts) — plus $5 million newly allowable through PACs.
But who exactly are the Kochs? (Pronunciation guide: New York mayor Ed Koch’s name rhymes with “crotch”; the Kansas Koch name rhymes with “poke.”) And why does this doc lack biographical and business history of the family?
May I share some disclaimer-type information with you? You have no choice, I’m sharing:
The Koch brothers’ $100 billion fortune includes some of world’s largest fertilizer, timber, pipeline and oil refinery plants, which I saw and smelled daily as a teenager in Wichita, Kan. Their father, the brilliant industrialist Fred C. Koch, was one of three original John Birch Society founders from Wichita. Their cultivated mother, Mary, was a good friend who, in later years, invited me to address her Shakespeare Club gatherings (“Pericles” was her obscure favorite) at the palatial Koch estate.
I never met the sons who — along with their anti-Obama Tea Party beneficiaries — are accused of racism in the doc, which opens with father Fred’s notorious declaration: “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America.”
So why didn’t “Citizen Koch” co-directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin call me — or somebody — for a little deep sociocultural background?
Never mind. Rhetorical question.
In any case, this film, similar to their Hurricane Katrina documentary “Trouble the Water,” employs the narrative device of interspersing three working-class folks (nurse, teacher and prison guard) who become casualties to Scott Walker policies. The Kochs are missing for 15-20 minutes at a time, in favor of rehashing the chaotic Wisconsin situation and the quixotic efforts of ex-Congressman Buddy Roemer to get on the 2012 presidential ballot.
The result is agitprop advocacy, a la Michael Moore (whose “Fahrenheit 911” and “Bowling for Columbine” were co-produced by Ms. Lessin and Mr. Deal) but lacking Mr. Moore’s onscreen chutzpah necessary to pull it off. Montages of Tea Party screamers with picture-signs juxtaposing “African lion” (the animal) and “Lyin’ African” (Mr. Obama) are disturbing, to say the least. But the only real investigative reporting involves a few fascinating factoids, such as Clarence Thomas’ blatant conflict of interest in the crucial Supreme Court ruling: Citizens United led the ad campaign promoting his confirmation in 1991, and his wife, Virginia, appears — wearing a Statue of Liberty crown — at a Tea Party rally!
It’s a one-sided polemic, preaching to the choir. In that regard, its point and probable intent are as a reminder to that choir — many of whom were AWOL for the 2010 midterm elections — that they might want to show up for the forthcoming 2014 one.
Opens Saturday at Harris Theater, Downtown.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: at email@example.com.
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