To paraphrase Hellraiser's Pinhead, PBS's spinelessness in refusing to air Citizen Koch ought to be legendary even in Hell. (Stephen Colbert has the last word on this act of public cravenness during the end credits.)
Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's documentary isn't an anatomy of the so-called Kochtopus, nor is it a study of the Koch's business empire. With $76 billion in property, the sons of the man who gave the world the John Birch Society, David and Charles Koch, have uniquely gamed the Supreme Court's oligarchy-enabling Citizens United decision.
The film runs over those circumstances, and pardon their familiarity: in 2010, the non-partisan Federal Election Commission sued to identify the makers of an anti-Hillary Clinton smear film. James Bopp of Citizens United, the group that produced it, claimed "we would suffer damage" if the backers were known. The Court backflipped to broaden the case, making it a referendum about the rights of corporate donors. The vote was sealed by the dozy, personally compromised Justice Clarence Thomas. He was, years before, the beneficiary of an attack ad funded by the same financiers now using millions to game elections.
The decision led to the most expensive off-year elections in American history, and the creation of mystifying, astroturf (i.e., fake grassroots) organizations. Halloween came early that year, as eccentrics showed up in cocked hats and knee britches to pad groups with names like "Americans for Prosperity." Spreading bogus populism and laissez-faire misery, the masked donors paid famous liars-for-hire from Sarah Palin on down.
Still, a better title for this documentary might be "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Wisconsin." There's time when this film risks being Mondo Kocho when it goes off subplotting—it takes in former Louisiana congressman Buddy Roemer's dark horse run for president in 2012, presenting himself as a man who didn't take a cent from billionaires.
But Deal and Lessin's story is really elsewhere, in Wisconsin. The state became a battleground when the Koch-funded governor Scott Walker took on the public unions.
Union rank and filers who happened to be Republican discovered that the governor they had elected was out to strip them of collective bargaining rights.
Citizen Koch's directors find and interview allegedly pampered union workers—a prison guard (and vet) who gets a mere $40k a year, a veteran's hospital nurse (and vet, also) trying to protect what benefits she has. They also unearth the pointman of the labor unions: Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO—a group in such reduced circumstances that they can't even afford to fix the sign out front of their building.
Two highlights in this northern battle: Ian Murphy's famous prank call to Walker, pretending to be David Koch (it's kind of a modified Dan Aykroyd accent). The other is a grim Chautauqua held by Americans For Prosperity on "the Tea Party Express," a bus hauling celebs (of a sort) to sing and perform in places like Green Bay. Bad music meets bad people, decked in only the finest racist anti-Obama shirts. About the biggest name aboard the bus was Jim Labriola of TV's Home Improvement. One could note that if it weren't for his union, SAG, performers of his caliber would be dancing for nickels.
It's an ugly picture, not lightened by the feeling that some elections can't be bought—as it cost Meg Whitman and Mitt Romney a pretty penny to find out. The title is ultimately vague—which Koch is the citizen? It's as vague as the presence of the Kochs; scheming plutocrats only have so much time to talk to the press, but there is one small on-the-fly interview between blogger Lee Fang and David Koch outside a heavily guarded Rancho Las Palmas hotel.
Murphy's fake-Koch is as good as the real thing: "You're the first domino," he tells Walker, and Walker agrees. And unless something is done to reverse Citizens United, the next election will occasion such a tsunami of cash, such a juggernaut of screaming attack ads, that most voters will be either too downhearted or disgusted to sully their hands with a ballot.
90 MIN.; NR