‘Dark Money’ sheds light on a massive political problem
Directed by: Kimberly Reed
Written by: Kimberly Reed and Jay Arthur Sterrenberg
“Dark Money” – Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (2010) – “Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.”
No matter your political stripe, it is difficult to declare that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission is good for the country’s democracy. This ruling – a 5-4 decision - opened up the floodgates for corporations to spend unlimited funds to influence elections, while simultaneously minimizing citizens’ voices. This impacts democrats, republicans, independents, and other voting blocks, and the only ones who benefit are big businesses, political action committees and wealthy individuals. Naturally, these latter groups carry their own viewpoints and/or agendas, and they now have the legal avenues to advance them in public elections.
In director/co-writer Kimberly Reed’s documentary, she explores the impact of dark money (political advertising dollars spent by unknown sources) and spends most of her time on one specific state, Montana.
With Montana and its residents still suffering from a brutal history of corporate corruption, the state government – decades ago - proudly passed very strict campaign finance laws, but the Citizens United decision encroaches on these protections. Unfortunately, Montana’s state legislature - made up of teachers, farmers, homemakers, and others who still maintain their full-time jobs - becomes highly vulnerable to dark money’s adversarial influence.
Reed sets up her picture as a whodunnit, and she introduces Montana in two ways: as a unique case study and a microcosm for the country.
Montana is nicknamed “The Treasure State” due to its vast, mineral resources. It’s the 4th largest state but is ranked just 44th in population, with less than a million residents. Due to the disparity between its actual physical size and population, Montana’s politics is inherently exposed to corporate influence. Dark money is also a national problem, and the issues plaguing this state can be found just about anywhere in the U.S.
This mystery also doubles as a horror show, because negative and false advertising can flood into local mailboxes and behave like sickening airborne viruses that float from unknown locations. These campaign messages can shape public opinion, and investigative journalist John Adams explains that determining the original sources can prove impossible.
This documentary carries similar bleak tones and viewer-frustration as Best Documentary Oscar winner “Inside Job” (2010), which explained – through interviews, Matt Damon’s narration and several flowcharts – the root causes of the 2008 housing collapse. “Dark Money” steps into comparable muck, as Adams, several Montana state legislators and U.S. Senator Jon Tester help untangle the knotty concepts of corporate campaign cash.
Reed does venture on a slightly odd turn with Adams’ personal story as a struggling print reporter living in a digital age. This tangent does not exactly fit into the film’s premise, but Adams’ role as a truth-teller pits a human face against a massive, faceless problem.
Reed’s film explains the problems caused by dark money, but the most powerful one is the colossal – and now abandoned – open-pit mine in Butte, Mont. The mine is not only a brutal eyesore for the locals, but - even worse - it’s a heartbreaking, toxic disaster. The doc would have been well-served to spend more time on this specific superfund site – one that behaves like a manmade lake of stomach acid - but perhaps that is a different movie.
Well, “Inside Job”, “Outside Job” and “Dark Money” are enough to inspire this critic to run for elected office, but then again, who are the corporate opponents? Don’t know. Great question.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.