'Dark Money': Film Review | Sundance 2018

A good, dense doc.

Kimberly Reed's documentary takes a hard look at anonymous big-bucks campaign financing in America and how efforts to do away with it have been thwarted.

“Follow the Money” is an abiding principle of election and government-related journalism, and it's the effort to make that process difficult that lies at the heart of Dark Money, a densely packed documentary that earnestly and obsessively addresses campaign finance reform, its history and vital importance. Back in the spotlight since the controversial and game-changing Citizens United Supreme Court ruling of 2010, it's an issue for which the solution could be easily arrived at through decency and common sense, two values that are in short supply in politics and big business. Instead, it's a vexing national problem that Kimberly Reed's film does its best to elucidate.

The knotty and legalistic subject, unfortunately, revolves around policy, legal documents, journalistic articles and political fights and therefore doesn't readily lend itself to dynamic visual presentation. Still, it's the kind of film that, to reach concerned citizens of all kinds, should, by rights, play in any and all sorts of venues in order to educate as many people as possible on a subject that affects the very nature of American governance.

The issue at hand is the right of the public to know whose pockets our elected officials are in and, by extension, what private interests will guide the way lawmakers vote on all manner of issues. Politicians can, and do, say all sorts of things, but it's critical to know who buttered their bread, who greased their wheels, who expects fealty on the issues of direct financial importance to their donors.

Not based on, but overlapping on certain points with, Jane Mayer's 2016 book of the same name, Dark Money sees the director Reed returning to her home state of Montana, for the reason that its economic history happens to provide an ideal backdrop for the story at hand. The big, sparsely populated state likes to think of itself as independent-minded politically, one of the few places in the country left where citizens feel a direct link to their local forebears and the pioneer spirit.

One of its legacies, however, involves the Anaconda Copper Mining Co., which, dating back well over a century, was one of the biggest trusts in the country, and its lasting physical mark is an enormous toxic lake where pit mining for copper went on for decades. In 1912, however, Montana banned corporate campaign financing in an attempt to purge the undo influence of big money bosses over policy.

But now, due to Citizens United, which was basically defined as a free speech decision, even if the “speaker” did not have to be publicly identified, big business and outside money came back to Montana, and everywhere else, in a big way, led by the Koch Brothers. Reed has spent the last six years getting to the bottom of the story where Montana is concerned, and the result is a dense, sympathetic, rather dry and academic look at an issue of massive importance to the way cases are adjudicated and the country is governed.

Although the many Montana exteriors are welcome, most of the film's tight running time is spent in people's drab offices and in courtrooms, as lawyers, campaign officials and one journalist in particular try to identify who is behind the smear campaigns that seem to pop up at at key moments in elections cycles, who is backing certain candidates and where the outside money is coming from.

The names, faces and issues dart out so hard and fast that it's not always easy to sort out the dynamics of some of the issues, who is backing whom and why, and so on; taking an instant pop quiz on the intricacies of state history and local politics after one viewing would be daunting. But the central point is crystal clear: Since Citizens United, anything goes where elections are concerned, and the practitioners of shadowy politics are so skilled at covering their tracks that it's becoming increasingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, to identify who's backing whom.

Dark Money effectively pinpoints how the smear campaigns function in an election; they paint with a wide brush, are often misleading or outright lies and often show up just days before voting, leaving the accused no time to respond or identify who is making the wild claims. It's the latter issue that is particularly vexing; a case could be made for individuals being allowed to contribute as much money as they want to candidates for office or for propositions, but why should their identities be protected?

Transparency is once again the ideal, the goal being sought, but Citizens United has provided the means to hide.

If there is a hero to this story and film, it is Montana Free Press reporter John S. Adams, whose relentless persistence helped local authorities prevail in a relevant corruption case that at least created a ray of optimism. What is really under scrutiny here is the sort of David and Goliath, Little Guy vs. Big Vested Interests tale that has cropped up with regularity over the course of America's history. In Hollywood movies about such things, the individual very often won at the end, a pattern Reed, and most viewers of this film, would like to see repeated. Dark Money represents a sure-footed and well-placed step in that direction.

Production company: Big Sky Films, Meercat Media
Director: Kimberly Reed
Writers: Kimberly Reed, Jay Arthur Sterrenberg
Producers: Kimberly Reed, Kate Chevigny
Directors of photography: Kimberly Reed, Eric Phillips-Horst, Jay Arthur Sterrenberg
Editor: Jay Arthur Sterrenberg
Music: Miriam Cutler
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

98 minutes