December 27, 2014 -- This documentary film about the takeover of American politics by big money will hold few surprises for those who have been following this issue closely, but it could serve as a primer, and as a wake up call for those unfamiliar with the Citizen's United decision, gerrymandering, vote suppression or the impact the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council have had on local politics around the country.
Fortunately, filmmaker John Wellington Ennis is an optimist, otherwise this litany of corruption he shows us in the highest levels of government would be even more depressing than it is. Ennis champions political activists of every stripe in the film, from graffiti artists to Occupy Wall Street, upstart politicians challenging the establishment to protesters and grass roots movements everywhere.
This film is rather loosely organized around the general theme of big money corrupting politics and government, but a lot of is is also centered in Ohio, a key political state in the last few presidential elections. The film doesn't spend much time on getting into a lot of detail about issues such as gerrymandering (arranging voting district boundaries to favor the party in power) but it does spend some time on a couple of political campaigns in Ohio.
One campaign that the film spends some time on is that of Paul Hackett, an Iraq War veteran who ran for Congress in Ohio in 2005 as an anti-war Democrat running against Republican incumbent Jean Schmidt in a conservative district. Hackett did very well until there were some vote-counting irregularities in Schmidt's home county, Clermont County. The film alleges, but fails to prove the election was rigged.
The second campaign covered in the film was that of Subodh Chandra, running for Attorney General of Ohio, a reformer who vowed to clean up corruption in state politics following the Tom Noe scandal involving mismanagement of state funds. It was alleged (again, not proven) in the film that Chandra's literature was destroyed in Ohio on the orders of the Democratic Party leadership. The eventual winner of the election was later tainted by sex scandals.
The third campaign in the film is that of Surya Yalamanchili, who ran against Jean Schmidt, who had now morphed from a war hawk into a Tea Party fiscal conservative in Congress. He won the primary election, but lost to Schmidt in the general election, being badly outspent and running in a very conservative district, gerrymandered to favor Republican candidates. In addition to these campaigns, the film also profiles some street artists who specialize in political art.
The film does have some examples of positive results by activists who successfully challenged laws pushed around the country by the Koch brothers, among the richest men in America. The union-busting law passed in Wisconsin and Ohio, was successfully overturned by a popular vote in Ohio. Activists were able to persuade a number of corporations to drop their funding of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) because ALEC had pushed the “Stand Your Ground” law that resulted in no legal punishment for the man who killed unarmed teenager Treyvon Martin.
ALEC also backs voter ID laws and other laws to reduce voter participation in elections. The film has a telling video clip from a speech by ALEC founder Paul Weyrich in which he said, “I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
The film has some journalistic weaknesses, such as, a reliance on hearsay, second-hand and third-hand accounts of events, which are presented as if they are proven facts. For instance, Chandra says he was told that party officials ordered his literature destroyed. This would be more believable if this statement came directly from the person who said this to Chandra (assuming that person was really in a position to know what was really going on) or from a person who actually destroyed some of the literature, or someone else high in the party chain of command.
The film is more effective when it presents first-hand information, or when it quotes authoritative sources, or when it includes video clips (like the one of Paul Weyrich saying he wants to reduce vote participation). It does serve as a good introduction into the topic of the corruption caused by money in politics. This film rates a B.
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