In Citizen Koch, it's clear that Oscar-nominated directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) did not set out to make the definitive documentary about the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court case and the flood of political "dark money" it released in its wake, the recall election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the rank-and-file union members of Republican persuasion who felt betrayed by Walker's union-busting policies, the Tea Party movement, the unsuccessful 2012 Republican presidential run of former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, or even the gajillionaire brothers David and Charles Koch to whom the film's title refers. The film spends time on each of these subjects, which is probably why it doesn't really nail any of them.
In other words, Citizen Koch is a bit of a ramble. If cohesion is your thing, you're not going to find it here. But Deal and Lessin peel back enough layers in all those stories to reveal a series of remarkable moments, most of them ranging from "whoa" to "holy shit!" on the astonishment scale but salted throughout with enough genuinely funny scenes to prevent you from wanting to blow your head off in despair.
A fair number of those moments are presented as simple did-you-knows, such as the fact that Fred Koch, the founder of what is now considered the second-largest private company in the U.S., was a co-founder of the John Birch Society in 1958. And that his sons Charles and David, who now run Koch Industries, were the largest contributors to Scott Walker's 2010 Wisconsin gubernatorial run, despite the fact that neither they nor their company reside anywhere near America's Dairyland. And that on the same day that the Wisconsin election board was presented with nearly one million signatures in support of the recall election, Walker was in New York City picking up a cool half-million from two high-powered, out-of state supporters. And that Citizens United was a major proponent of the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas—now arguably the court's most conservative member—back in 1991. And that the film was initially slated to receive funding from the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and to air on PBS's Independent Lens series before both funding and airing were cancelled ... and that the Koch brothers, oddly enough, have funded public television to the tune of $23 million over the years.
There are some real meat-on-the-bones, dramatic moments here as well, especially given the context of what has happened since the 2010–2012 timeframe encompassed by the film. There's footage of Obama's 2010 State of the Union address, where conservative Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito famously made a sourpuss face and mouthed the words "That's not true" in response to the president's concern that the recent Citizens United decision would open the floodgates for special-interest spending in U.S. elections. There's a shot of Scott Walker on what appears to be a victory junket around Wisconsin after his initial election, telling a billionaire contributor that his strategy for breaking public-sector unions was to "divide and conquer" by tying their collective bargaining rights to the state's annual budget. Another scene shows volunteers working for Walker prior to the recall election making cold calls to potential voters about his opponent's record of tax increases as mayor of Milwaukee, and then the official in charge of that effort saying on camera, with a straight face, that his people were engaged in strict issue advocacy and not candidate advocacy.
The funny moments in the film come primarily from feisty U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Milwaukee, a fierce opponent of Walker's efforts to tighten voter ID laws in the state, who opines that the rich and powerful must get nervous around election time because of the equal power inherent in a single vote, and urges her constituents to exercise their voting rights "because they don't want you to." Intimate moments arise from the film's profiles of the Republican union workers who join the recall effort against Walker, culminating in a surprisingly sweet scene when one of them, in his mid-50s, votes for the very first time.
You won't come out of Citizen Koch with all the dots connected on the dark-money, union-busting, tea-partying world we live in. But the dots Deal and Lessin build the film around will absolutely get your head spinning. And sometimes, that's more than enough.
Citizen Koch screens at the Roxy Fri., June 27–Sun., June 29, at 7 and 9 PM nightly. Visit theroxytheater.org for more info.