It seems like it has been a while since a really effective documentary has struck fear in me for the future of our country on an issue that, on the surface, should be one that is nonpartisan and would benefit the citizens of each and every state should rules have been put in place, adhered to and enforced. The issue that Dark Money directly tackles is corporations using campaign donations to sway policy by giving money (directly or otherwise) to a person running for office.
As it’s explained in the film, the days of lobbying one issue at a time are disappearing, giving way to a corporation pouring money into a campaign and effectively buying government officials wholesale. By doing this, they don’t have to keep coming back to the elected official with each new policy vote when they know they have him/her in their pocket from Day One.
It’s an insidious and ugly process that has become commonplace nationwide since the Supreme Court decided in 2010 that corporations were the same as people when it came to campaign contributions, thus giving them permission to donate as much as they saw fit. Few places were hit harder by this decision than the state of Montana, which had long-standing laws in place about just such influence in the early 1900s, going back to mining companies owning offices. The result of these policies was an effective and transparent process that included a set of rules and an oversight panel that decided if any candidate has taken an illegal contribution. In the wake of the high court’s decision, Montana found a way to keep the process transparent, even as “dark money” poured in from mysterious political action groups—chief among them Citizens United—which cares about nothing but issues that impact its ghost financiers, some of whom might even been from outside the United States.
Director Kimberly Reed took six years to piece Dark Money together, and it’s a very different film than her first work, 2008’s exceptional Prodigal Sons. That film documented her return to her hometown of Helena, Montana, for her high school reunion where she reintroduced herself as a transgender woman—and that’s just the jumping-off point. Dark Money still feels personal to Reed, as she clearly takes a great deal of pride in her home state’s long practice of accountability in government and is devastated by this wave of corruption that people seem all too eager to embrace.
Dark Money’s most heartfelt moments come while following the paths of a handful of Montana journalists who had been covering state politics and the fate of these transparency laws when they were all let go, with the implication being that the corporations that had seeped into politics had also done the same to certain news outlets. But by sheer will power, one of the reporters starts up his own online outlet and ends up being a major source of political reporting in the state. It’s one of the few uplifting moments in a film that is filled with ones that range from scary to angering.
The movie is expertly researched and informative and provides a clear timeline and path toward the destruction of our democracy if these practices remain unchecked. It may not be your idea of the perfect summer movie, but it’s a powerful documentary that you should make every effort to find. (And if I’m not mistaken, Dark Money had a PBS logo in front of it, so keep an eye on your local affiliates, because it may find you.)
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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