Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s documentary “Citizen Koch” (which opened June 27 at Laemmle’s Playhouse) achieved a certain notoriety when its nominally independent backers at ITVS dropped support for the film. Although other reasons were given, there is little doubt that the real cause was the fear (at ITVS or further along the indie food chain, e.g., PBS) of offending the film’s nominal subject, billionaire right-wing activist David Koch, who is a major contributor to public TV.
The original working title had been “Citizen Corp,” and I wish they had stuck with it, because, while the Koch brothers are central in the final product, they share that spotlight with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. I was looking forward to a feature-length examination of the Kochs themselves and, though this is a fine, arguably important documentary, it’s not really Koch-centric.
But Lessin and Deal settled on the current title, and, once they received unsavory pressure to change it, they had no choice but to stick with it. So: Don’t expect the film to be a scandalous expose of the Kochs in particular; it has some of that, but it focuses more on the effects of their policies on formerly middle-class families who happen to be longtime Republicans. We see a lot of renegade Republican Buddy Roemer, whose attempts to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 were hampered, even squashed, by the party establishment.
Koch and his brother Charles — multibillionaire owners of Koch Industries, the second biggest privately held corporation in America — may well be the most important figures in the last three decades’ efforts to push the electorate to the right, frequently by distasteful means like voter disenfranchisement and union-busting. Personally, I would choose Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News violates every code of journalistic ethics, validating distortions and lies that used to be rightfully labelled as fringe beliefs...and has pushed much of the rest of TV news in the same direction.
But it’s nice to have a face of evil to focus on, and David Koch has the central casting look of every genial, well-fed, well-groomed “fat cat” in decades of TV and film. Character actor buffs can see him in Pat Hingle or Christopher McDonald or Dennis Patrick.
If there’s something positive to say about the Kochs, it’s this: Most wealthy greedheads grab at everything they can get right now; the Kochs understand the value of playing the long game. For decades, at the intellectual end of the spectrum, they have been establishing and funding influential think tanks, PACs, super-PACs and other entities to push their view of the world. In the ground game, they encouraged — and manipulated the direction of — popular discontent. If the seed of the Tea Party was genuinely grass roots, the Kochs have paid for a lot of fertilizer to promote its growth.
“Citizen Koch” should not be confused with Robert Greenwald’s “Koch Brothers Exposed: 2014 Edition” (an update of Greenwald’s 2012 documentary), which is available on YouTube and continues to be screened at fundraisers and organizing events. (There is actually a little overlap; identical clips from a particular interview turn up in both.)
Neither film has the final word; both concentrate on the Kochs’ effects on the rest of us. And, in both cases, the filmmakers tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to give the brothers a chance to respond.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).