REVIEW: Dark Money [2018]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 99 minutes
    Release Date: July 13th, 2018 (USA)
    Studio: PBS
    Director(s): Kimberly Reed
    Writer(s): Kimberly Reed & Arthur Sterrenberg

This is now the proving ground for the American experiment.

The facts speak for themselves in director Kimberly Reed‘s Dark Money: Montana is our nation’s epicenter for corporate election donations. Her interviewees provide us a rundown of why (the copper mining industry’s interest in favorable policy-making leading them to put a corporate stooge onto the legislature) in order to lay the investigative groundwork for explaining the steps citizens have taken to combat it. What make their argument so powerful, however, aren’t the facts as much as the speakers themselves. These aren’t agenda-driven democrats seeking to bury the Koch Brothers and uncover their conservative financial pipelines. No, the majority of those we see fighting against this corruption are republicans still in possession of their integrity. These are politicians who realize you cannot uphold the law by breaking the law.

They’re an inspiring revelation—bona fide unicorns of sorts when compared with their federal government counterparts of today who have all but thrown their scruples into the garbage so they can pocket those corporate donations and retire early while the world burns around them. I’m talking incumbent legislators who want smaller government and fight for fewer taxes being pushed out by their own party because they refused to check a box that said they’d vote for whatever the political action committee (PAC) financing the eventual candidate wants. These are people voted in by constituents who favored the strongest anti-corporate donation laws in the country that watched as a Supreme Court decision threw them to the wolves. A coordinated blanketing of defamatory literature later and their seat was gone.

Reed’s film takes as its default lead a journalist named John S. Adams and his quest to get to the bottom of where this money that everyone is talking about comes from. He takes us into offices with candidates who were slandered days before their election and thus without any time to properly address the messaging coming out against them. He shows us leaked emails and correspondence supplied by former PAC employees who took a stand to ensure the things they were passionately fighting to get passed did because of the will of the voters and not opportunistically deep-pocketed businesses from outside state lines bankrolling a movement to fill their wallets further at the expense of America’s health, stability, and trust. The evidence is absolutely unbelievable.

Yet nothing has changed. Talk of “draining the swamp” was emptier than believed thanks to delusional mob mentality believing it actually was. Judges have been bought and sold, elections rigged, and appointments made to ensure it’s nearly impossible to change things back. And we still have people screaming about First Amendment rights as though corporate entities are citizens with a vote—one that supposedly weighs many times more than the vote of a normal taxpayer donating x-amount of money for a red hat. The reason is of course because the damage is done. If we’re looking at the money trail after the fact, the candidate has already won and already accomplished everything their anonymous donors desired. It’s up to us right now to prevent it from happening again.

So we watch the landscape change after the 2010 Supreme Court vote. We see the blatant lines of connection working in plain sight thanks to the Colorado-based lawyer that represented a PAC coming to Montana to defend the government official accused of receiving support from that same PAC. The amount of flaunting happening is outrageous and yet they’re emboldened not to care because they’ve yet to be held accountable. And when they know the Supreme Court is on their side (let alone a corrupted Federal Elections Commission as explained in the film), they know that they probably never will. Reed presents a series of events that’s nothing less than discouraging with would-be heroes excited to make an impact coming out the other end too tired to try again.

That newfound sense of defeatism is the real kicker because it’s not enough to win. These PACs use analytics and social conditioning tactics to demoralize opponents (regardless of political affiliation) and disenfranchise anyone thinking he/she can prevail where they’ve failed. And we only know what we do inside this film because of a few brave souls who risked their careers, reputations, and freedom to bring it to light after pocketed judges sought to brush everything under a rug by sealing away the details. Brave souls able to see the difference between having an agenda brought to fruition and having it hijacked through illegal means to represent something else completely. The world has evolved too fast for our archaic institutions to keep up and that vulnerability was seized upon.

It’s therefore great that Dark Money has the backing of PBS to be utilized as an educational tool. There’s a lot of information, but it’s all given proper context with which to comprehend its explosive ramifications. I would have liked an example from the other side of the aisle to really drive home the problem’s ubiquity (plenty of democrats receive this type of contribution too), but I get why Reed didn’t broaden her focus unnecessarily. One: seeing republicans pitted against themselves shows definitive proof of how the party has devolved towards moral bankruptcy. Two: Everything here is Montana-specific and thus heavily republican-specific. This is an isolated example of a systemic issue. So next time you protect someone you revile because he/she is from your party, ask yourself, “Why?”

Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.

[1] John S Adams silhouetted in the Montana Capitol building, from DARK MONEY a PBS Distribution release
[2] John S Adams explains the flow of dark money, from DARK MONEY a PBS Distribution release
[3] John S Adams in the Montana Capitol building, from DARK MONEY a PBS Distribution release

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