There’s little doubt that Citizens United vs. FEC is one of the most disruptive Supreme Court decisions of this century so far. The decision is commonly known as the case that established that “corporations are people” and have the right to donate to financial campaigns. The decision remains extremely controversial today, especially given the push for more transparency in government. This is where “Dark Money,” a new film from Kimberly Reed begins its exploration of corruptible politicians. By using the case study of Montana, the film is able to show the local effects of national politics. In doing so, it provides a scary look at the future of American politics, while making the clear case against this kind of corruption.
“Dark Money” examines campaign finance through the microcosm of Montana. The state has long been seen as having some of the cleanest politicians in America. Dating back to the Copper barons of the late 1800s, the state has long been skeptical of corporations giving to politicians. Reed weaves the physical representation of this corruption with the Berkeley Pit Copper Mine into the plot of the film. The mine is so acidic due to pollution over the years that birds that land in the water die. Its a poignant reminder of the dangers of corruption on a political system.
The film begins with Republicans and Democrats alike getting spent out of elections. The different candidates explain smear campaigns that they simply can’t combat, often times due to influxes of cash from unknown entities. Unknown political groups move into the state, including Western (later renamed American) Tradition Partnership. What’s worse, many moderates on both sides are wiped out in favor of extreme candidates from either side of the aisle. These Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with political campaigns, yet the belief is that many obstruct these laws. How can you stand up to a political machine if you don’t know who is fighting against you?
That is where journalist John S. Adams comes in. Adams believes there is negative intent behind these organizations, pointing to the circle of corruption that they create. While politicians cannot take bribes, filtering the money through a Super PAC essentially functions as one. This allows companies or even individuals to pay for political influence on a local or national scale. The film highlights some of the big players in this field of political operation, including the Koch Brothers and the National Right to Work organization. While some of these may not be new to those who follow politics closely, their influence can be astounding to the layman.
What makes “Dark Money” stand apart from many films like it, is the way in which Reed tells a B and C plot for the film. The film’s focus never sways away from Montana’s current battle with corruption, even when it turns it’s eye to the national Federal Elections Commission. It always focuses on Montana politicians and how this epidemic affects them. However, it also examines the history of Montana politics, often relating back to the Anaconda Copper Company. There’s black and white footage that shows the physical toll of these companies, and how they did so much damage to Montana.
The real gem is a tertiary plot about the role of journalism in fighting back against fraud. Adams is our focus to understand this story, and with the film’s 7-year examination, we see the rise and fall of the local media. Adams becomes homeless, bouncing from couch to couch so he can continue his journalistic pursuits. His story is the most inspiring part of the documentary and gives the film an unexpected heartbeat.
The film can also be a little heavy-handed at times, even showing the death of geese in the acidic Copper Mine late in the film. It’s a strong metaphor but feels a bit on the nose. However, given the severity of the issue at hand and complexity of campaign finance, the metaphor hits. The film doesn’t quite stick the landing, namely because of the modern ways in which campaign finance has somehow become more complex in the last eighteen months. It’s nothing that Reed could have anticipated, especially given that she had already spent 7 years on the film. The problems that Twitter and Facebook represent are mostly untouched. This leaves a large gap in how campaign finance will be handled in the future. Maybe in time, Reed can create a sequel to this story examining modern technology’s role in campaigns today.
Overall, “Dark Money” is a very strong film that should be shown to as many people as possible. With PBS theater distribution and the strong likelihood that the film will eventually play on television, we may get that wish. Reed’s story is an important one to pay attention to in our modern political landscape. With midterms mere months away and faith in journalism at an all-time low, these stories are important. By showing these stories, and framing them through a microcosm, its application to our local elections is obvious. Hopefully, this film and the story it tells will receive the attention it deserves.