William Randolph Hearst did everything he could to prevent Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” from playing in theaters because the maligned “hero” of that film, Charles Foster Kane, was obviously Hearst. Though the names had been changed and the situations altered slightly, Hearst was still recognizable and so furious that he ordered his chain of newspapers to refuse advertising for the 1941 drama and not give it so much as a mention. There were threats and libels as well, and when the film finally came out despite his best efforts to suppress it, Hearst ordered his entertainment writers not to review it. All of this has been documented in “The Battle over ‘Citizen Kane,’” and I thought of that as I watched “Citizen Koch,” a documentary whose titular allusion is so obvious that it almost feels gimmicky.
Coincidentally, PBS refused to air “Citizen Koch” because they were afraid that one of their largest contributors, David Koch, would retaliate in some way. But that’s where the similarities end. “Citizen Kane” dramatized the rise and imagined fall of one of the richest and most powerful men in America. “Citizen Koch” implies that we’ll likewise learn about the rise and continued dominance of the very much alive David and Charles Koch, but the focus of this film isn’t on the billionaires at all. It’s on the Battle for Wisconsin that ensued after the Supreme Court ruled that corporations were people and that, while their contributions to political candidates could be limited, the same could not be said for donations to organizations, however political in nature. The Koch brothers and their money were at the eye of this hurricane, but we never really learn to what degree, or get much in the way of personal or professional details about either brother.
Instead, the focus of “Citizen Koch” is on the rise of so-called superpacs and the big money that was partly responsible for the emergence of the Tea Party and the installation of Koch puppet Scott Walker as Governor of Wisconsin. And I use the term “puppet” because if there’s a maligned “hero” of this film who matches up against Kane, it’s not the Koch Brothers. It’s Walker, a man we hear one of the brothers phone to suggest planting troublemakers in the protest crowds after Wisconsin reacted to his Koch-directed union-busting tactics. “Once you crush those bastards, I’ll fly you out to Cali and show you a good time,” we hear Koch telling the governor. Call it the Nixon smoking gun, but all it does, really, is to pique our interest to hear more about the Kochs. Instead, filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin make it all about Wisconsin and the first battleground in what amounts to class warfare.
Yes, we get numbers thrown at us from time to time that illustrate the depth of the Koch brothers’ involvement, and we get the interesting detail that their father, Fred C. Koch, was a co-founder of The John Birch Society, a radical anti-communist right-wing advocacy group that supports limited government. But I would like to have heard more about that, and about the story behind David Koch’s run as a Libertarian vice-presidential candidate back in 1980, when Ronald Reagan apparently wasn’t conservative or free-market enough for the brothers. And in fairness, there isn’t much about the Koch family’s philanthropic activities that aren’t politically motivated. Their money has helped to fund museums, arts and culture projects, medical research, and environmental stewardship.
So the film isn’t exactly as advertised. But it IS as subjectively political as the title implies—which is to be expected when film’s producers can list Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” on their resumes. If you happen to lean left, you’ll find “Citizen Koch” as infuriating as more than a million Wisconsin residents do after feeling taken in by modern-day carpetbaggers—people who seek to wield political influence in an area where they have no local connections. That’s because Americans for Prosperity spent 63.5 million to fight the Walker recall election, denying it was election advocacy with the dismissive “We’re an issues group” and “We don’t discuss our funding.” As a result, Walker outspent the opposition 8 to 1, and his out-of-state contributions beat the opposition 2 to 1. That extra money was enough to give Walker 53 percent of the vote, and we watch the Americans for Prosperity model in action and learn why. At several rallies they use sleight of hand to shift the message to “support Walker to stop Obama.”
There are plenty of infuriating details. Walker didn’t “take the unions out at the knees,” as was the goal, but his actions reduced membership by 50 percent. I’m sure there are perfectly normal Tea Party members out there, but in this film they’re shown in videos that portray them as bullies and racists—something that reinforces what I’ve experienced in my own community. Two Supreme Court justices—Thomas and Scalia—are shown to have had conflicts of interests when they voted in favor of corporations and big-money donors. And Wisconsin voter after voter tells the filmmakers that this isn’t their Republican party anymore, or expresses frustration that while the recall movement was amassing over a million signatures, Walker was attending a Wall Street fundraiser at which he picked up two checks totaling a half million dollars . . . from non-Wisconsinites.
But if you can look past the politics that have polarized the U.S., this film still will raise your blood pressure because it points to a problem that is endemic to both major political parties: big money is ruining government, and elections and individual votes are being undermined by donors who don’t live in the state and don’t pay taxes in the state. Elections are being bought, and the arrogance that we see displayed by spokespersons for Americans for Prosperity, the superpac funded by the Kochs, is downright galling. But there are plenty of average Republican voters shown, as well as people like John McCain speaking out against the Supreme Court decision that ruled that corporations are people. And when you watch a Republican candidate like Buddy Roemer fighting an uphill battle in his own party just to get 1 percent of the vote and 0 percent name recognition, you can see how money has created a country-club atmosphere on the national stage so that anyone without big money is completely shut out. This is also slickly illustrated by the juxtaposition between Roemer’s campaign headquarters and billionaire Mitt Romney’s. And a recently leaked audio from a Koch Brothers Donor Summit shows that it isn’t just candidates that are being set up to do the Koch’s bidding. It’s an entire political party.
As Buddy Roemer says, “Wake up, America, they’ve stolen your government.”
“Citizen Koch” is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the video quality is pretty standard for a recently shot DVD these days. Edges and black levels are sharp, colors are true-looking, and the way that Blu-ray players upconvert you’ll find a level of detail on DVDs like this that we wouldn’t have gotten 15 years ago.
The audio is overkill, given that the film is voiceover and dialogue driven: an English Dolby Digital 5.1 that has a nice fullness to it and well balanced bass and treble. Subtitles are in English, and there’s an English 2.0 option.
There’s a nice “Meet the Artists” panel from the Sundance Film Festival in which we get a nice sense of where these folks were coming from and what they were trying to do, and that’s balanced nicely by a ringing endorsement from Michael Moore who appears in “Big Brother on Film: A Conversation with Michael Moore” in which the filmmaker talks about the challenges involved in taking on giant corporate interests. Rounding out the bonus features are extended and deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.
“Citizen Koch” may have been intended as an indictment of the Koch brothers and their influence in changing the political landscape in Wisconsin, but without saying as much it also makes a compelling argument for campaign finance reform . . . and maybe Supreme Court reform. It’s biased and it’s not the film that the title suggests, but there’s still value in this documentary.