Film Review: ‘Dark Money’

In Kimberly Reed's potent documentary, Montana is a microcosm of the troubling impact of the Citizens United ruling on U.S. democracy.


In her first directorial feature since debuting a decade ago with the memorable first-person documentary “Prodigal Sons” (about the filmmaker’s own family issues and gender transition), Kimberly Reed returns to her home state for a broader political inquiry. “Dark Money” looks at how the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has unraveled nearly a century of relatively clean politicking in Montana, clouding the Big Sky state with an influx of corporate-funded smear campaigns and legislation of dubious pedigree.

It’s a case study all too applicable to the nation at large in an era when moneyed interests seem to be trumping (ahem) citizens’ will and welfare on every front. After premiering at Sundance in January, this potent investigative piece is continuing to travel the festival circuit, its next stop being the Full Frame Documentary fest in Durham, N.C., on April 8. PBS, which acquired the doc in March, has planned a theatrical release for summer, when the approaching midterm elections no doubt will maximize public awareness of the film’s central issues.

For decades, Montana had arguably the cleanest campaign laws in the U.S., precisely in reaction to a long history of political corruption. Its sparse population and rich natural resources made it particularly vulnerable to private-industry malfeasance: As far back as 1912, the excessive control over Montana’s economy, lawmakers and media by a single prominent copper-mining company sparked a voter backlash that resulted in strict controls of campaign contributions and spending. Even so, ensuing years left memories of industry run amok in the toxic forms of strip-mined landscapes and wide-ranging pollution. (The film includes accounts of migrating geese who die en masse simply because they rested on a body of irredeemably poisoned lake water.)

In reaction to all this, Montanans strove for a “citizen legislature” of representatives who, while in office, held onto their day jobs — farmer, schoolteacher, Porta-Potty vendor — and were resistant to lobbyist bribes because the state’s political finance rules were so tight. Then came the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, creating “corporate personhood” and allowing, in the name of “free speech,” unlimited political contributions without donor transparency. Almost immediately, a new genre of political attack campaigning hit the state, with propaganda and misinformation flooding airwaves and mailboxes. These generally came from hitherto unknown organizations that claimed to be of grassroots origin but whose funding was unknown — and almost impossible to trace.

Interestingly, many of the targets in this red state were Republicans, albeit those perceived as too moderate or not willing enough to enact the legislative agenda of the Koch brothers and other right-wing puppet masters whom Citizens United now allowed to hide behind the middle-man of the Super-PAC. People on both sides of the aisle were horrified by this blatant meddling, particularly as it successfully used inflammatory scare tactics to unseat several respected politicos.

Sprawling over several years’ course — with detours to glimpse how parallel events have played out in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. — Reed’s film details the ongoing fight against the influence of the “dark money network.” While most protagonists here are elected officials, a principal figure is John Adams, an investigative journalist who continues to relentlessly “follow the money” even after he loses his newspaper job. It’s a rather harrowing portrait of democracy under threat, even if ultimately there is hope: Not only is there a closing call for citizens to resist such institutionalized corruption, but the doc culminates in the downfall of one particularly crooked state official.

Still, “Dark Money” is but a microcosm of what’s been happening nationwide. And with bodies like the Federal Election Commission and Supreme Court increasingly stacked to prevent any movement that would derail the trend, it’s clear the nation is in trouble. Since the doc focuses at least as much on Republican as Democratic activism against outside corporate influence-peddling, this is the rare social-justice documentary that few conservatives are likely to find too slanted in theme or perspective.

In contrast to the very personal “Prodigal Sons,” Reed’s sophomore feature is straightforward reportage, telling a complex, multi-issue story with a large number of players, in admirably cogent terms. Not for nothing is there a screenplay credit — the mountain of intel here must have been daunting to organize into feature-length form, with co-writer Jay Arthur Sterrenberg doing a fine job as editor. He manages a lively, never-static mix of talking heads, archival materials and some breathtaking landscape shots by the three DPs. (You can’t go wrong with Montana scenery — unless, of course, it’s been strip-mined.) All other technical contributions are first-rate.

Film Review: ‘Dark Money’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, March 2, 2018. (In Sundance, Full Frame, Nashville film festivals.) Running time: 97 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A PBS release of a Big Sky Film Prods., Big Mouth Prods. and Meerkat Media Collective presentation in association with JustFilms, Ford Foundation and Topic Studios. (International sales: Big Sky, New York.) Producers: Kimberly Reed, Katy Chevigny. Executive producers: Michael Bloom, Adam Pincus, Nancy Stephens, Rick Rosenthal, David J. Cornfield, Linda A. Cornfield. Co-producer: Miriam Cutler.
  • Crew: Director: Kimberly Reed. Screenplay: Reed, Jay Arthur Sterrenberg. Camera (color, HD): Reed, Eric Phillips-Horst, Sterrenberg. Editor: Sterrenberg. Music: Miriam Cutler.
  • With: John Adams, Jon Tester, Debra Bonogofsky, Jim Peterson, Ellie Hill, Amanda Curtis, Llew Jones, John Ward, Edwin Bender, Ann Ravel, Steve Bullock, Mike Wheat, Verner Bertelsen, Trevor Potter, Rob Cook, Chuck Johnson, Sheila Krumholtz.