Documentary ‘Dark Money’ is close to a political thriller

( Unrated ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

Director Kimberly Reed goes out of her way to present all sides of the controversy – which is not to say that she doesn’t clearly delineate, through vast documentation and testimony, her indignation at what Citizens United has wrought. 

PBS Distribution
In the documentary 'Dark Money,' Montana's state capitol building is seen at dawn.

The making of Kimberly Reed’s documentary “Dark Money” was prompted by the 2010 United States Supreme Court Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate spending in election campaigns if it is done apart from a candidate or party. She began her movie two years later, when her home state of Montana unsuccessfully challenged the decision. Filmed over three election cycles, “Dark Money” follows the ramifications of that Citizens United decision.

Its primary focus is Montana, a state that for nearly 100 years had in place the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act forbidding corporations from donating to state and federal elections in the state. That act was in response to the rapacious tactics of the copper barons who bought into the state’s political system. In Reed’s view, the rapaciousness of those days is once again upon us.

To characterize “Dark Money” as some kind of PBS-style educational treatise (indeed, the movie is distributed by PBS) would deny its urgency. It’s closer to a political thriller, complete with crusading reporters, suddenly discovered caches of incriminating documents, and courtroom climaxes. What distinguishes the film from a Michael Moore-ish partisan screed is that Reed goes out of her way to present all sides of the controversy – which is not to say that she doesn’t clearly delineate, through vast documentation and testimony, her indignation at what Citizens United has wrought. 

The issue of corporate influence in politics is best put forth by Ann Ravel, former Democratic commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, who says in the film that campaign finance is “like the gateway issue to every other issue that you might care about, whether it be education or tax reform or foreign policy.” 

Dark money is defined in the film as funds given to so-called nonprofit organizations that then use those funds to influence elections. The unlimited amounts allowed, and the groups’ lack of accountability, are at the heart of the pushback against the 2010 Supreme Court decision. 

In the case of Montana, for example, difficult-to-trace out-of-state money flooded into a series of state elections, often at the last minute, in support of alarmist blitz mailings targeting primary candidates, many of whom were Republicans deemed insufficiently conservative in such areas as gun control, abortion, and education. The culminating trial in the film centers on former Senate majority leader Art Wittich, who was accused of accepting but not disclosing contributions from the dark money organization American Tradition Partnership, among others, during his 2010 primary campaign for a Senate district seat. The Montana Supreme Court unanimously upheld a decision holding Wittich in violation of campaign finance laws.

Reed had the immense input of John S. Adams, a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, now with The Montana Free Press, who relentlessly brought sources of dark money to light, along with the efforts of, among others, Montana’s former attorney general and current governor, Steve Bullock, and Gene Jarussi, a veteran trial lawyer who came out of retirement to prosecute Wittich. 

“Dark Money” should set off warning bells for even those who believe that the Citizens United decision, equating corporations with people and money with speech, was a First Amendment victory for free speech. As several commentators in the movie make clear, without a determination of where the unlimited dark money is ultimately coming from, the risk of covert influence of foreign money in our elections is ever-present. These days especially, this is not an idle concern. (Editorializing about a July 16 Treasury Department ruling concerning tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, the Los Angeles Times noted “it could make it more difficult for the government to police laws against spending by foreigners on U.S. elections.”)

Reed’s implicit point, which could have been more pronounced, is that dark money, at least in theory, is not the exclusive province of either Republicans or Democrats. The undue influence of money on elections is not exactly news, but the ways in which that influence can now be secured, given the current state of the law, certainly is. 

The film’s ultimate clarion call is for new constitutional laws at the state and federal level designed to reveal the sources of dark money. To put it another way, citizens have the right not to be duped. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)

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