Score: 2.5 stars **1/2 out of 4 stars ****
Even among the best documentaries about American politics, the party leanings of the person running the show eventually, if not instantly, are made clear. Whether it be the far left (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Citizenfour”) or far right (“Hillary’s America: The History of the Democratic Party,” “2016: Obama’s America,” “Waiting for Superman”), they all come with an agenda; some just hide it better than others.
For a solid hour, “Dark Money” writer/director Kimberly Reed is able to keep her own political opinions away from the narrative, which — in its own way — is a mighty feat indeed. You can’t get two minutes into a Michael Moore movie before knowing how it will end. It is in the final 30 minutes with what Reed should have avoided and — more importantly — what she failed to include, that her film takes an avoidable nosedive.
At the heart of “Dark Money” is what transpired in her home state of Montana in the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It was with a 5-4 vote that the Court essentially gave corporations and organizations the same First Amendment rights as individuals, which removed many but not all regulations regarding limits on election-related financial contributions. It’s worth noting the gestation of the case began with the 2008 film “Hillary: The Movie” (produced by Citizens United) and its blocked cable airing days prior to the start of that year’s Democratic primaries.
Every U.S. state strictly adhered to the court’s decision, save for Montana, which had drafted a campaign finance law of their own over a century earlier. It was in 1899 when mining/banking/railroad magnate William A. Clark attempted to literally buy his way into the U.S. Senate and was eventually prohibited from assuming office after being elected — not by the people but by state politicians — a seminal event in American politics which led to the passage of the 17th Amendment.
From that point onward, the people of Montana put strict limits on campaign contributions and their adherence to that mantra — even while directly defying the land’s highest court — was in many ways, admirable. The nation’s 4th largest and 8th least populated (mostly Red) state was making a collective stand on principal and sticking to their guns; they won’t be bought. It is during this stretch where Reed’s film is at its most inspiring and where she shines brightest.
It is at the halfway point when Reed loses her bearings and reveals her true colors by directing her ire squarely at conservative donors (the Koch brothers are mentioned multiple times) and the various shell non-profit organizations crafting the various office races. This is nothing new to American politics and, while lacking in decorum, is still currently legal. Having all of this going down in a solid Red state where Republicans battle each other like street brawlers does provide drama and irony but it is something that happens in every state in practically every election cycle.
Political junkies on both sides of the aisle are going to have radically different reactions with Reed’s choice to omit the fact that “dirty money” is not the exclusive province of the Right but something practiced by both major parties and backed with heavy financial support by the likes of George Soros, Tom Steyer, and Michael Bloomberg, among others. This omission is understandable as “Dark Money” was produced by PBS and its umbrella off-shoot POV.
In the final third of the film Reed also shifts her attention away from the message and more towards the messenger in a most cloying and manipulative manner. Weaving in and out of the proceedings from start to finish is Great Falls Tribune beat political reporter John Adams whose looks and manner suggest a more rugged version of Watergate-era Bob Woodward. Like Woodward (and his partner Carl Bernstein), Adams gets under a lot of the wrong people’s skin and to a much lesser degree becomes part of the story he’s covering. Adams’ naïve reaction to the fallout of his actions and Reed’s “wounded puppy” attention to it is embarrassing to watch.
One surely unintended bit of foreshadowing comes with the inclusion of Senator John Tester, the Democrat at loggerheads with President Trump currently fighting for his political life, a fate which will be determined at least in part on how he votes on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
If you like “Dark Money” and want to see another documentary set in Montana directed by current New York resident Reed, check out her far-better 2008 debut “Prodigal Sons.” In that film Reed returns home where she grew up to attend her 20th year high school reunion as a transgender woman. Issues involving sibling rivalry, family pressures associated with the tolerance (or lack thereof) of coming out are displayed and captured with for more heart, clear-eyed conviction, and intelligence.
“Dark Money” is now playing in select cities.
Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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