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Citizen Koch: Sundance Review

Citizen Koch

The Bottom Line

Pumped-up rationalization for the electoral failure of the “Recall Walker” movement in Wisconsin that will appeal to the left.

Venue

Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Directors

Carl Deal, Tia Lessin

Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's documentary examines the struggle between money and democracy through 2012's recall-election campaign of Gov. Scott Walker.

PARK CITY -- If you’re cringing that you suspect this documentary is about feisty former New York Mayor, Ed Koch, who died Feb. 1, it’s not. It’s about brothers David and Charles Koch (pronounced "Coke"), the above-the-radar but behind-the-scenes wealthy industrialists who bankroll right-of-center causes and candidates.

The political focus in this narrative is the state of Wisconsin, long a contradictory bastion, careening from the philosophies of progressive Robert LaFollette to the paranoia of commie-hunter Joe McCarthy. The Badger State always has roiled with a robust, contradictory political persona.

Citizen Koch ties the big-money Koch brothers to the 2011 recall-election campaign of Gov .  Scott Walker. The governor’s policies outraged Wisconsin’s public-service unions, who were able to mount a recall election. Big Labor claimed Walker was trying to bust collective bargaining; others believed that Walker was reclaiming citizen’s rights from the tyranny of the public-sector unions, most egregiously the teachers union.

You don’t have to get to the end credits-crawl to discern the political sentiments of the filmmakers; at the ending of this filmic opinion piece, it’s not surprising to see that Michael Moore and Sundance gave their approval or whatever to the left-of-center diatribe.  

Basically, filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin create a central narrative that because Walker won because he had the most money. Admittedly, documentary also can be propaganda for a cause -- or, to put it more kindly, advocacy. Credit to the filmmakers for positing their point of view.  

While one might agree or disagree with their theme, aesthetically Citizen Koch is feisty: From the salty music to the varied opinions of off-road coots who express their displeasure with the electoral process, it percolates with the odd energy and pulse of the voters. The filmmakers have an eye for characters, and their down-home philosophizing, is perhaps the most refreshing part of the film. Politically, the star is conservative Ed Roemer, who can’t even get into the Republican debates but whose Louisiana charm cuts through muck of electoral official-speak.  

As a Wisconsin native, Vietnam War protestor in Madison in the ’60s and son of public-sector workers, this reviewer must note that several inconvenient truths are omitted from this sincere doc: Walker’s re-election saved Wisconsin school districts from paying the monopolistic prices of the teachers union-owned health-care provider, WEA. As a result, districts saved huge amounts, which they could better redirect to retaining teachers. And, left to their volition, thousands of public employees ended their compulsory union memberships, preventing unions from confiscating portions of their wages to pile into the political coffers of favored left candidates. But, that’s another movie, one certainly for a different festival.

Directors: Carl Deal, Tia Lessin
Producer: Gillian Caldwell, Carl Deal, Tia Lessin
Executive Producers: Abigail Disney, Farhed Ebrahim, Gini Reticker
Directors of photography: Joan Churchill, Nadia Hallgren, Bill Turnley
Editor: Lisa Palatella
No rating, 105 minutes