A spirited, convincing, and eminently watchable bit of agitprop edutainment, Citizen Koch, directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, is the latest liberal riposte to the conservative agenda. It’s one of the most persuasive and levelheaded examples of such. On a cinematic level, it’s also just another in the mandatory but endless stream of functional documentaries that vilify the right out of a desire for justice often eclipsed by a much greater desire for catharsis.
The film begins with a speech in which Sarah Palin argues that the Tea Party wouldn’t exist if not for President Obama, showing the former governor of Alaska effectively admitting the racist and reactionary motives behind the resurgence of the right-wing fringe. Just as important, Deal and Lessin argue, is how Palin’s contemporary accusations of socialism connect the Tea Party to the John Birch Society, which was created to root out Communists in America; once openly believed that African Americans were at the heart of the red effort; and was founded by the father of the Tea Party’s wealthiest benefactors, billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
As its title suggests, Citizen Koch is not a fair and balanced portrait of how the shifting sands of campaign financing have had an impact on recent elections. On the contrary, Deal and Lessin’s documentary is a damning condemnation of how the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision endowed corporations with personhood, paving the way for the unlimited spending of super PACs and the rise of those who would be most keen to buy the votes they can’t earn. Citizen Koch works from the top down, attacking Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia for how their conflicts of interest overturned 100 years of sound policy, before eventually looking at the practical fallout of that ruling through the lens of the attempt to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Both directors cut their teeth working for Michael Moore—Deal as an archivist, Lessin as a producer—but if their own work shares the same political leanings of their former employer, it doesn’t exude the same righteous hostility. Passionate but never vituperative, Citizen Koch may not make a concerted attempt to mask its sympathies, but the film’s well-chosen subjects give the impression that history is doing most of the talking. As Deal and Lessin entrench their cameras in Milwaukee for the 2012 recall election, they hone their (overly) narrow focus on a sampling of conflicted Wisconsin citizens. While the film has a wide variety of talking heads, the majority of the civilians spotlighted are registered Republicans who are struggling to reconcile the integrity of their conscience with the transparent union-busting of their party (the unions being the left’s only collective bargaining chip against the largest super PACs).
If nothing else, Citizen Koch provides a rather optimistic solution to the mystery of the undecided voter, shining a light on intelligent, engaged people who are experiencing a genuine conflict of values. As an additional benefit of that illuminating glimpse, the film also does an unusually cohesive job of tracing the divide between the Tea Party and the Republican Party, helping to demonize one and salvage the other. But what ultimately helps Citizen Koch rise above the dozens of other movies like it is a focus not just on recent developments in American politics, but also on the bedrock of what has made this country such an enduringly great, astoundingly troubled experiment: one person, one vote.