Film Review: Dark Money

An air-raid siren of a documentary about the pernicious influence of corporate cash in American politics.
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Nobody in Dark Money comes out and says, “As goes Montana, so goes the nation.” But they may as well. Kimberly Reed’s clear and cogent documentary uses the sparsely populated and spikily independent Western state as a test case for what the rise of secret political fundraising means for American democracy. It’s a lesson worth listening to.

The Montana that Reed (Prodigal Sons) shows is one of nearly unnatural beauty. Angular cliffs carpeted with bright green pine trees and great sweeping plains unfurl under her frequently airborne camera as though for some pristinely photographed travel documentary. But there’s wrack and ruin amidst the glorious nature. Abandoned mine shafts, rusting derricks, and the oil-slicked expanse of a Superfund lake so poisonous that geese who accidently landed in it died by the hundreds all speak to the legacy of a state with a long history of corruption and resource exploitation.

The movie’s pocket history of Montana politics tells how back in the 19th century companies like the Anaconda Copper Company openly bought politicians. But popular disgust over blatant corruption led to some of the nation’s most stringent laws on campaign finance. Dark Money tells how in recent years that protection was chipped away at by forces inside and outside the state who fought to lift limits on how much money people and corporations could funnel to politicians and to shield them from having to disclose any of it.

Reed and John Adams, a scrappy investigative reporter who serves as the movie’s lead spelunker, primarily pin their sights on Republicans. That, however, has more to do with the natural alignment of big-money donors with pro-corporate conservatives than a noticeable political slant. For a movie with such a clear point of view, Dark Money is populated with a refreshing number of Republicans who agree that big money and democracy are terrible bedfellows.

The story of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which opened the spigots of campaign cash, has been told before. But Reed weaves it into a larger narrative in which it is simply one of the steps in the unraveling of modern campaign-finance laws. It’s an ugly, naked power struggle that seems harder to hide in the intimacy and close quarters of an underpopulated place like Montana.

Led by Adams, Reed highlights anecdotes that graphically visualize what big donations mean to small democracy. Radical anti-government libertarians stealth carpet-bomb their rivals with scare-tactic mailers on guns, crime and abortion that spread blatant lies with no hint about who created or paid for them. A whistleblower discloses a cabal of state GOP politicos planning a “purge” of fellow Republicans who break ranks with their anti-regulation, pro-corporate ideology. A trial of a state GOP senator shows a politician willing to outsource his entire operation to an outside dark-money group.

Dark Money is a dark movie. There’s no getting around the despair in the words of Ann Ravel, the onetime FEC commissioner as she laments the inevitable result of Citizens United and the Republican members who have kneecapped the nation’s campaign-finance watchdog with their lockstep obstructionism: “The FEC will not enforce the law.” But there’s also no getting around the inspiration to be found in Reed’s portrayal of plucky pro-transparency Montana politicos and people like Adams, the bluffly heroic journalist who is barely let go by his downsizing newspaper before starting up a new state news bureau to keep poking around in dark corners. Corruption abhors a spotlight.

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