The Koch Brothers Starring as Charles Foster Kane

Documentarians: Deal and Lessin
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Christopher Snow Hopkins
May 27, 2014, 8 a.m.

When Cit­izen Koch has its Wash­ing­ton premiere on June 20, two seats will be re­served for Charles G. Koch and Dav­id H. Koch.

“We wel­come them to come and talk about it,” said Tia Lessin, who wrote and dir­ec­ted the doc­u­ment­ary with her long­time part­ner, Carl Deal. “We’d love to have a dia­logue.”

The bil­lion­aire in­dus­tri­al­ists are un­likely to at­tend. Cit­izen Koch, which doc­u­ments the polit­ic­al tur­moil in Wis­con­sin after Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Scott Walk­er took of­fice in 2011, casts the Koch broth­ers as shad­owy fossil-fuel mag­nates who pumped mil­lions of dol­lars in­to the tea-party move­ment fol­low­ing the 2010 Cit­izens United Su­preme Court rul­ing.

“We didn’t set out to do a take­down of the Kochs, but we thought that what they were do­ing was symp­to­mat­ic of a big­ger prob­lem,” Deal said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view at the May­flower Hotel. “When Cit­izens United came along, we knew that the land­scape had shif­ted dra­mat­ic­ally, and there were go­ing to be a lot more op­por­tun­it­ies to spend money secretly.”

The 86-minute doc­u­ment­ary splices to­geth­er foot­age of tea-party un­rest with the stor­ies of three Wis­con­sin state em­ploy­ees, all stal­wart Re­pub­lic­ans, who had be­come dis­en­chanted with the move­ment. It also ad­vances the ar­gu­ment that tea-party polit­ics have been en­gin­eered by cor­por­ate in­terests. At one point, the film­makers cut to a posh re­sort in Ran­cho Mirage, Cal­if., where the Koch broth­ers ar­ranged a re­treat for con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers in Janu­ary 2011.

The meet­ing “provided a clear ex­ample of how moneyed in­terests were warp­ing demo­cracy,” the dir­ect­ors say in the press notes for the film. “This secret con­ven­ing of the coun­try’s wealth­i­est con­ser­vat­ives, tea-party-aligned politi­cians, and right-wing pun­dits plot­ting to de­ploy hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to in­flu­ence the out­come of the 2012 elec­tion clearly could not sur­vive the light of pub­lic scru­tiny. Just as the con­ven­ing began, the Kochs’ private se­cur­ity de­tail ejec­ted Tia — a re­gistered hotel guest — from the premises.”

Much of the film takes place on the steps of the Wis­con­sin Cap­it­ol, where tea-party act­iv­ists faced off with pub­lic-sec­tor em­ploy­ees fol­low­ing an at­tempt by Walk­er to cur­tail col­lect­ive-bar­gain­ing rights in Feb­ru­ary 2011. “We wanted to give an ex­per­i­ence of what it was like to be there,” Deal said. “Our chal­lenge was to con­vey that to an audi­ence.”

He ad­ded that the jux­ta­pos­i­tion of tea-party act­iv­ists with their left-lean­ing coun­ter­parts high­lighted the dif­fer­ences between the two. “There is a pop­u­list an­ger in Wis­con­sin, and it comes from both sides.”¦ But the [left-lean­ing demon­strat­ors] felt very au­then­t­ic and very loc­al.”¦ It just felt like a groundswell of people in the heart­land.”

Cit­izen Koch, which was shown at the Sund­ance Film Fest­iv­al in Janu­ary, was ori­gin­ally in­ten­ded for pub­lic tele­vi­sion, but the doc­u­ment­ary’s fin­an­cial back­ers with­drew their sup­port un­der pres­sure from WNET, the New York PBS af­fil­i­ate. As The New York­er‘s Jane May­er re­por­ted in May 2013, a pre­vi­ous film about the ex­tra­vag­ance of Park Av­en­ue had in­censed Dav­id Koch, and WNET was un­will­ing to ant­ag­on­ize one of its main be­ne­fact­ors by air­ing a second film crit­ic­al of the Koch broth­ers’ life­style and polit­ic­al activ­it­ies.

“When pub­lic tele­vi­sion killed the fund­ing, it was pretty dev­ast­at­ing,” Lessin said. “We’re big fans and sup­port­ers of PBS. If Koch money can even get to PBS, where can’t they get to?”

Ul­ti­mately, Lessin and Deal made up the dif­fer­ence by launch­ing a 30-day Kick­starter crowd-fund­ing cam­paign that raised $169,552.

Lessin and Deal, who proudly reside out­side the Belt­way, were nom­in­ated for an Academy Award for Trouble the Wa­ter, a 2008 doc­u­ment­ary that com­bines a home movie with cinema ver­ité foot­age as it shad­ows two self-styled “street hust­lers” in the wake of Hur­ricane Kat­rina.

They were also pro­du­cers on three of Mi­chael Moore’s best-known films: Bowl­ing for Columbine (2002), Fahren­heit 9/11 (2004), and Cap­it­al­ism: A Love Story (2009).

Lessin and Deal, who have col­lab­or­ated on films since 2002, are rais­ing a 3-year-old son. “People ask us all the time how we work to­geth­er,” Deal said. “People raise chil­dren to­geth­er, people build lives to­geth­er, people do really hard things to­geth­er. We find a lot of joy in it.”

What We're Following See More »
White House Proposes New Tax Plan
16 hours ago

The White House on Wednesday laid out its plan for tax reform, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin saying it would be "the biggest tax cut and the largest tax reform in the history of our country." The tax code would be broken down into just three tax brackets, with the highest personal income tax rate cut from 39.6 percent to 35 percent. The plan would also slash the tax rate on corporations and small businesses from 35 percent to 15 percent. "The White House plan is a set of principles with few details, but it’s designed to be the starting point of a major push to urge Congress to pass a comprehensive tax reform package this year," said National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.

Dems Proposes Obamacare-for-Defense Deal
1 days ago

"An emerging government funding deal would see Democrats agree to $15 billion in additional military funding in exchange for the GOP agreeing to fund healthcare subsidies, according to two congressional officials briefed on the talks. Facing a Friday deadline to pass a spending bill and avert a shutdown, Democrats are willing to go halfway to President Trump’s initial request of $30 billion in supplemental military funding."

Michael Flynn Remains A Russian-Sized Problem
1 days ago

The Michael Flynn story is not going away for the White House as it tries to refocus its attention. The White House has denied requests from the House Oversight Committee for information and documents regarding payments that the former national security adviser received from Russian state television station RT and Russian firms. House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz and ranking member Elijah Cummings also said that Flynn failed to report these payments on his security clearance application. White House legislative director Marc Short argued that the documents requested are either not in the possession of the White House or contain sensitive information he believes is not applicable to the committee's stated investigation.

Sally Yates to Testify on May 8
1 days ago
U.S. To Conduct Exercises In Estonia
1 days ago

The U.S. deployed "F-35 joint strike fighters" to Estonia on Tuesday. The "jets will stay in Estonia for several weeks and will be a part of training flights with U.S. and other NATO air forces." The move comes at a time of high tension between the U.S. and Estonia's neighbor, Russia. The two nations have been at odds over a number of issues recently, most of all being Vladimir Putin's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in light of Assad's chemical weapons attack on his own people in the midst of a civil war.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.