Campaign finance reform is a phrase that pops up multiple times in any given news cycle, doubly so during elections. As America continues its struggle to reckon with the ups and downs of capitalism, we’ve often been forced to ask just how far one’s purchasing power can go, and whether or not corporations have the same financial rights as individuals. Is it ethical for a faceless entity with untold riches to sway the whims of politicians via massive donations? Is it right for politicians to ignore the needs of the people they represent in order to cater to their biggest benefactors? Dark Money, the in-depth documentary from Kimberly Reed (Prodigal Sons) aims to explore how far the tendrils of campaign finance reach, and what dangerous effects they have on larger, seemingly unrelated issues.
As a microcosm of these woes, Dark Money roots its focus in the government of Montana. Back in the day, this state made much of its money in mining copper. Unfortunately, the copper barons left behind a fair amount of environmental damage which the politicians of the time couldn’t be bothered with. Why? Because the barons viewed any motions toward environmental responsibility to be detrimental to their bottom line. Much easier and cheaper to create a quid pro quo with members of any governing body that could potentially stand in their way. The deal is simple: The barons help pay for a politician’s campaign so long as said politician supports legislation which benefits the barons.
The people of Montana saw this happening and voted to set forth regulations that limit the amount which can be donated to a campaign by any one party as well as requiring transparency on the receiving end. Politicians MUST claim every cent. But with politics being such an altruistic business (coughs suggestively for a full hour, dies), the response to this legislation was not to reject donations or increase transparency. Instead, faceless third-party coalitions began springing up, offering a direction to which a politician could point potential donors. These third-parties would then funnel donations into campaign materials, both to promote the candidate of choice and to discredit their opponents. It’s pretty gross.
Once Reed has established the tug of war regarding Montana’s attempts at maintaining ethics in campaign finance, she pulls the lens back to see how this battle has affected larger American governing bodies. It is here that the film, as biting and necessary as its criticisms are, loses a bit of its focus. We follow not just the narrative suppositions of how deeply corrupted by big business our government has become, but also a specific trial back in Montana involving a politician whose connections to corporate donations have come to light. Through all of this the film links up with investigative journalist, John Adams, who runs into difficulties of his own while trying to “follow the money” to find corruption. In juggling these narrative threads, the entertainment value of the film drops considerably, despite having increasingly concerning subject matter. The message is repeated so many times that some aspects do begin to feel like filler. However, where Dark Money succeeds is where so many other political docs fail: it offers a buffet of solutions to the problem at heart, and all seem feasible enough to inspire action from even the most skeptical political cynics. This is extremely valuable information, and in conjunction with John Adams’ regularly changing (and frequently bizarre) facial hair, it smooths over the pacing issues well enough to make Dark Money worth a watch.
Dark Money opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.