If you’re already feeling cynical about the current state of the United States, fair warning: Dark Money isn’t going to lighten your mental load. But filmmaker Kimberly Reed‘s intelligent documentary is unquestionably an important, timely expose of the dangers that shady untraceable corporate and ‘special interest’ funding of political campaigns poses to the ideals that many Americans still hold dear.
Dark Money takes place largely in Montana, where determined investigative journalist John S. Adams works doggedly to determine the full impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” decision — the one that (in)famously declared political spending a form of free speech, which meant that corporations couldn’t be stopped from using funds to support or denounce specific candidates.
That “dark money” — so-called because it’s often hidden beneath layers of bureaucracy and veiled in secrecy — can be used to influence elections, allowing those with money and influence (can you say “Koch brothers”?) to essentially buy the candidates they want in office and usher other candidates or incumbents out of the political landscape.
The result, according to many, is a clear and present danger to American democracy. When smear campaigns target candidates who have insufficient funding to defend themselves, an election can hardly be considered fair or above-board. And when those smear campaigns come from groups with vague, patriotic names like “Americans for Prosperity,” the average person isn’t likely to question their inflammatory claims — they’re just likely to vote for “the other guy.”
In order to preserve the hope of ethical leadership, Dark Money argues, it’s essential that we know who’s behind these carefully calculated plans. Reed’s impeccably researched, detailed film pulls back the curtains most of us didn’t even know that we are trying to peer through, laying out the insidious corruption that’s doing its best to take over our political process. Watching this documentary is a key step in learning how to fight back. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Susan Wloszczyna: Dark Money sheds light on the effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 that opened the door to undisclosed corporate funding of smear campaigns and political agendas that served not we, the people, but they, the big-pocketed rich and powerful. Read full review.
Nell Minow: While most discussions of “dark money” focus on K Street lobbyists, Capitol Hill, and corporate boardrooms, Kimberly Reed takes us into the lives of ordinary people in her home state of Montana to show the pervasiveness and damaging consequences of money from undisclosed sources in politics, even at the local level. There are real-life heroes and real-life heartbreak in this story of democracy distorted and resources diverted. When the word “public” as in “public school” and “public park” is replaced with “government,” it is a signal that corporate and 1% money is being used to distort political debate. This is one of the most frightening films of the year, and also one of the most important. Read Kimberly Reed interview.
Esther Iverem: Forget all the hocus-pocus and hysteria over unproven foreign “interference” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The new documentary, Dark Money, details the real and dangerous impact of unchecked political contributions by billionaires and corporations on the entire American project in democracy—starting on the local and state level. As facts unfold in scene after scene, you might find yourself shouting out loud: “What?!” This is necessary viewing.
Kristen Page Kirby: Everyone has pretty much already made up their mind about whether or not companies and other organizations should be allowed to donate money — sometimes massive amounts of money — to political candidates and officeholders. Possibly because of that, Kimberly Reed’s documentary doesn’t really argue one side or another. Instead, Dark Money is a straightforward look at the question of how these anonymous contributions happen and what influence they have on political policy. For those unfamiliar with the Citizens United decision, Dark Money is a good primer on the issue and presents the information in such a way that the viewer can make up their own mind about it. Unfortunately for Reed, there’s not much of visual interest in her subject, but it’s clear and engaging enough to communicate the issues at hand.
MaryAnn Johanson Kimberly Reed’s second feature is wildly different from her first, 2008’s Prodigal Sons. I haven’t seen that one, but it’s plain that she has taken a huge leap as a filmmaker to go from an extremely personal story that she herself lived — that film is about her life as a transgender woman and her struggle to be accepted by her family — to a documentary about enormous political issues that impact the entirety of governance in the United States. And yet, with this examination of campaign finance in the wake of the disastrous Citizens United case, she has once again found a very personal way to draw us into the matter, focusing on a few personalities in local government in Montana. Bravo to Reed for making something dry and wonky human and engaging.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Director Kimberly Reed’s powerful political documentary Dark Money explores the dangerous implications of corporate dollars and private interests buying and influencing American elections. The film deftly reveals how Montana might be a sparsely populated, traditionally conservative state, but most of its voters understand why preserving fair elections is not a Republican or Democratic issue but an American issue. The interviews with various elected officials and potential political candidates, investigative journalist John Adams, and various attorneys make a compelling argument for why Dark Money in elections can lead to a host of Manchurian candidates whose loyalties lie not with their constituents but with the forces that helped get them more votes (often through lies and manipulation).
Jennifer Merin Kimberly Reed’s documentary is an explosive expose about the tremendous threat the influence of concealed corporate funding of political campaigns poses to the democratic process and the legitimacy of our elections. Dark Money is a cautionary tale that shows how independent candidates for public office are targeted and defeated by special interest groups hiding behind nonprofit organizations that are funded by wealthy and influential individuals and.or corporations — the Koch brothers, for example — who are basically buying elections and gaining control of the future laws and policies of the United States, and the rights of US citizens. Reed follows an independent investigative journalist who takes a penetrating look at election regulations regarding campaign contributions, tracks dark money back to its sources and pulls the veil back on corrupt individuals who are abusing the basic tenets of our government. The well-researched and extremely important documentary is a political shocker that should be mandatory viewing for all Americans. Read full review on CINEMA CITIZEN
Cate Marquis “Follow the money” is an old phrase used in newspapers but dark money thwarts the public’s right to know. It prevents the public from finding out who is funding public efforts like direct mailings or political ads, information that can reveal motivations behind those political or public policy efforts, and who benefits from them. Legally, these campaigns are not supposed to coordinate with the politicians’ campaign, but the use of multiple organizations funded by dark money’s hidden donors can mask that coordination. Director Kimberly Reed follows the story from multiple viewpoints. Read full review.
Title: Dark Money
Directors: Kimberly Reed
Release Date: July 13, 2018
Running Time: 99 minutes
Screenwriter: Kimberly Reed (documentary)
Distribution Company: PBS
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin