Still a fiercely controversial subject four years down the line, the Supreme Court ruling on a case involving lobbying group Citizens United in 2010 allows no restrictions on political spending by corporations or associations, which essentially results in elections being bought if one’s pockets are deep enough. Using the grossly overinflated campaign of Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker as a case study and a warning, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Citizen Koch explores the immediate and long-term consequences of the court’s ruling, shifting its perspective between old-fashioned politicians in over their heads and the decaying and unjustly vilified labor unions.
Like their earlier Trouble the Water, Deal and Lessin portray men and women yearning for a simple place in society as they become casualties to the self-involvement of larger forces. While the Citizens United ruling doesn’t carry the same emotional heft as the repercussions of Hurricane Katrina in Trouble the Water, the filmmakers still convey an admirable level of empathy toward the union workers as they attempt to thwart the conservative Walker’s infamous bill that would have eliminated collective bargaining rights. As a substantial amount of protestors to the bill were Republican, Deal and Lessin tap into the pervasive sense of betrayal the people feel toward their state government by focusing on a handful of galvanized middle-class workers who now inadvertently find themselves in positions within grassroots activism; this involvement even varies in scale, from a corrections officer who becomes a mouthpiece for his union, and a veteran simply voting for the very first time.
Deal and Lessin counter the aspirations of the modest Wisconsin protest movement with the funneling of money by the superrich (including the titular energy baron brothers) into campaigns to further extreme right-wing values. This feeling of powerlessness would prove condescending to the union workers in the film, yet the directors extensively outline the mixed emotions the ex-conservatives have for their former party, in which the filmmakers depict them in a purely humane light and free from ideological biases.
The film loses some focus when shifting to the irascible Buddy Roemer, the former Louisiana governor whose campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 is chronicled. As he refuses any money from a PAC group established to fund campaigns, Roemer is essentially left for dead in the polls, which subsequently exposes the unwieldy spending involved in modern American politics. Roemer’s story is stretched out to a repetitious end, and, as intriguing as it is to see the controversy over Citizens United directly from the politician’s point of view, the subplot offers nothing that the film’s main subjects haven’t already expressed.
Furthermore, after detailing at length the nefarious actions some politicians will do to attain votes, Deal and Lessin try to drum up the same level of empathy for Roemer as they effortlessly do for the common Wisconsinites. But Roemer, who’s now an Independent, as well as the former Republicans who fought against Scott Walker’s mandates prove, and which Deal and Lessin explicate in a balanced and thoughtful filmmaking style, that the Citizens United problem isn’t biased toward one party, as, ironically, there doesn’t seem to be any winners as a result of a court ruling that radically changes the traditional election process into one-sided affairs.