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Review: Dark Money

Posted by Gail Barth on

I went to a showing of the limited release documentary Dark Money today, and I walked out with a ton of anger and a dollop of hope. And while Trump is barely a mention, his presence is felt all the way through as the known poster boy for cheating his way into office. But it’s the state of Montana, traditionally a red state, that’s the star of this show. And as a Missourian who just celebrated the departure of our justifiably disgraced governor, I was at least partially aware of the power of so-called dark money. It was dark money and gullible voters that propelled Greitens into the governor’s mansion, with his assurance to the money behind Right to Work that turning Missouri into a RTW state was his priority. True to his word, he overrode Missouri voters, who consistently voted against it, but a referendum resulting from a campaign organized masterfully by Missouri’s unions killed Goliath, and Missouri remains a non-RTW state. This is just one major battle, albeit a very important one, that Missourians fought; spunky Montana has been in the middle of political turmoil going back to the early twentieth century.

The documentary begins with a reference to the Montana of 1912 when the state was run by copper barons who influenced elections by throwing barrels of money at politicians who would then support their agenda. That year Montana enacted campaign finance laws that prohibited corporations from contributing to the election of their political puppets. For many years, their laws stood firm. With its citizen legislature and salt-of-the earth elected officials, Montana stood against Right to Work and the slimy politics that dark money infuses into every election it slithers into. Then came a challenge by the infamous Citizens United in 2010.

The movie, directed and produced by Kimberly Reed, uses journalist John Adams as the voice and presence that carries the narrative along. Adams had been a political reporter for the Great Falls Tribune when he and several other veteran political journalists were suddenly let go in a ‘restructuring.’ It’s never established whether the tenaciousness of these reporters were responsible, but it seems suspicious. Adams’ truck became both his home and his office while he continued to follow the stories, and he eventually started the Montana Free Press. But Adams isn’t the only hero of the piece.

The film sets out to expose and highlight the threat to free and fair elections by corporate money that can’t be traced. It does a good job of telling that story, using stubborn Montana, Reed’s home state, as the focus. Many of the politicians interviewed in the documentary are moderate Republicans (it is a red state, after all), but they were also victims of the dark money thugs. As someone points out, it’s as if there’s yet another party being created by dark money donors. We have the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Repugnicans (my word, not theirs). This new party consists of bought and paid for ultra conservative politicians who can advance the conservative corporate agenda. The senators and representatives interviewed in the movie talk about how ugly fabricated smear campaigns have often derailed their own campaigns with last minute hit and run tactics. As one man points out, there is no way to fight it: With only a week or two until the election, they don’t have time to even digest the accusations and lies, let alone effectively combat them with the actual truth. Dark money funds the postcards, robocalls, last minute ads, etc. The mailer sent out on one politician even labels him a friend of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy. Democratic farmer/senator Jon Tester is interviewed repeatedly; he, of course, is now in the crosshairs of Trump’s ire over the Jackson debacle, and Trump is doubling down on the insults, name-calling, and debasing in his concentrated effort to seeTester go down in flames in November. And you can bet that dark money is at work now and until the election.

So, some takeaways from the documentary: Dark money is very real and corrosive to the country’s election process. The state of Montana is plucky, and the dollop of hope I mentioned earlier comes from a closing comment that, even if the state can’t enforce the unsavory infusion of dark money into its elections, at least Montana voters are more aware of what’s going on, and hopefully their long and wise tradition of citizen legislators will help them resist. And if former Montana attorney general and current governor, Democrat Steve Bullock, ends up making a run for the presidency in 2020 as rumored, he could be a very good choice. He’s been both a victim of dark money and a warrior in his state’s battle against it.

You won’t leave the theater feeling like you’ve been on a wild ride; it’s been called a ‘political thriller’ of sorts, but it’s still a documentary. I needed to focus and process, but what I learned was totally worth it. It’s a well-made film by a director who clearly has the knowledge and passion to pull it off. And it has won an award as a selection at the Sundance Film Festival. And Trump and his dark money congressional doxies will hate it. That’s worth a lot right there.

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