An Eye-Opening Look on the Horrors of Financial Influence in Politics
Title: Dark Money
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: Ihr & 39min
*** (out of ****)
In November 1995, a snow goose landed in what seemed to be a water formation in Butte, Montana. Soon after, 341 other geese joined it, and very quickly, all of them were dead. This is because the water formation was not a lake, though it is roughly the size of one. No, this was the 700-acre Berkeley Pit, comprised of the run-off from a former copper mine that is now a Superfund site and a tourist destination. For two dollars, visitors can examine the site whose water has roughly the acidity of vinegar. History would eventually repeat itself almost exactly 21 years later, except this time, the snow geese numbered in 10,000, turning the reservoir “white with birds,” as someone once put it.
How the Berkeley Pit came to be and how it turned into a Superfund site is somewhat tangential to the concerns of Dark Money, a documentary exploring the source and influence of corporate campaign financing. In some way, though, the corporate mismanagement of the pit, goaded by politically conservative funding, mirrors the way money and politics often go together. One can imagine a scenario in which the funding for the pit is argued by the corporations that have mismanaged it falls into the arena of constitutional free speech. Even though we never actually see that argument made by anyone during the documentary, it is ever-present.
The main subject of the film, though, is the political atmosphere in Montana in a general sense, from the early days of political cronyism to the year 2017, in which there was a court case that came at the back-end of a battle to preserve a 100-year-old law. The legislation, introduced in 1912, was once the strongest tool against corporate donations in the entire country. It was a state law, of course, and not a federal one, overturned in 2012 when the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling without any hearings or debate. The vote was narrowly split at 5-4, sending the countrywide conversation about money in politics into a tailspin.
Reminding us that the Watergate scandal was, at its core, about campaign financing violations, the film recounts the creation in its wake of the Federal Election Commission, which would utilize both major political parties in hopefully useful ways, before narrowing its focus onto some specific cases. Primary among those is the monolithic presence of “dark money” corporations in Montana, such as Western Tradition Partnership (WTP) and Montana Citizens for Right to Work. In one case, former Montanan state legislator Art Wittich, upon failing to comply with campaign donation laws (which he believed to be more needless regulation through government overreach) and allowing the WTP to run grossly unpleasant attack ads on his opponent in the process, is thrown off the bench.
The tales woven by director Kimberly Reed’s access to politicians (both current and former) and journalists (such as John S. Adams, the tireless editor of the Montana Free Press) take on the feeling of inspiring douche chills in the audience, such as when Americans for Prosperity (a group funded by billionaire-mogul brothers Charles and David Koch) throws a shindig for a Republican candidate but refuses to invite him to speak because of his refusal to declare loyalty to their cause. As it turns out, such clandestine arrangements are crucial, and even as Reed employs traditional staging and style, Dark Money coasts on the shock value of the facts to force us to care. It works.
(Review by Joel Copling)
(Review by Chase Lee)