Dark Money doesn’t open with a cackling politician or conniving lobbyist or fat envelope of cash. The first thing you see in Kimberly Reed’s new documentary on the pervasiveness and unaccountability of money in politics is a flock of snow geese, possibly flying to their agonizing deaths.
Birds like that sometimes land in Montana’s Berkeley Pit, an ominous name for the grimy lake that’s gradually filling what was once the world’s largest open-pit copper mine with water full of so much arsenic, zinc, and other nasty elements, it’s about as swimmable as pool filled with stomach acid. Thousands of geese landed in it in late 2016, and did not take off again.
The pit features prominently in Reed’s film because, even though the mine’s been shut down since Earth Day 1982, it’s emblematic of both Montana’s historically bipartisan style of environmentalism and renewed efforts to drill everything in the land of the Big Sky to within an inch of its life, thanks to spigots of mysterious campaign cash.
At the turn of the 20th century, Reed recalls through grainy archives, Montana was controlled by a clutch of industrialists known as the Copper Kings who owned, through their under-the-table largesse, nearly all of the state’s politicians and media. Residents, sick of seeing their lands torn up, passed a ballot initiative in 1912 implementing one of the first bans on campaign contributions from corporations. It didn’t put an end to extractive industry, but it did stick a wrench in corporate ambitions to control government and give Montana an admirable style of Western-state populism.
Fast forward 98 years to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which overturned federal and state bans on corporate money in politics. The court’s 5-4 verdict—a ruling that earned the five GOP-appointed justices who signed it a direct rebuke in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address—also knocked down local bans in more than 20 states, leaving all levels of government susceptible to torrents of untraceable corporate cash.
Montana, though, held on to its own ban. And that’s where Reed’s narrative picks up, with the sudden appearance in Montanans’ mailboxes of literature from a group calling itself the Western Tradition Partnership. Or maybe it’s the American Tradition Partnership. One can’t be sure: thanks to Citizens United, these groups pop up seemingly overnight with no requirements to disclose their funders. All we know for sure is that they’re relentless, bottomlessly funded, and armed to the gills with lawyers like Jim Brown, a fast-talking twerp who openly boasts that he doesn’t think there’s any such thing as too much money in politics because political money—wherever it comes from—is protected speech now.
Sure enough, Brown’s outfit takes down Montana’s ban at the Supreme Court in 2012, shoving Montana’s pristine lands back to the wolves. The super PACs flood the state, Republicans who willfully do the bidding of corporate masters take over the legislature, and the state’s Commissioner of Political Practices—a dinky but committed watchdog agency—is kneecapped.
Fortunately, Reed’s found a cast of dissenters worth rooting for. There’s the commissioner himself, Jonathan Motl, who’s since left office; Steve Bullock, who was the Democratic attorney general before being elected governor in 2012 (and may soon be running for President); Llew Jones, a Republican state senator who, despite what you may think of his other positions, makes the convincing argument that unlimited corporate contributions stifle, rather than encourage, free speech.
The hero Reed keeps turning to, though, is an investigative journalist named John Adams, who’s crunched out of his newspaper job when the company that owns Montana’s biggest papers consolidates its statehouse bureau—remember, it’s the 2010s, and local newspapers are dying—and moves into his truck to launch an independent website to continue his reporting. It’s the kind of sacrifice all journalists dream of making, made all the more riveting when Adams gets the drop on the Western Tradition Partnership’s shadowy origins and a state senator who’s been on the take.
Dark Money is rightly designed to rile you up, but there are moments Reed would’ve been well-served to dial it back in places. A vignette about Watergate, for instance, seems poignant at first, but ultimately muddles the plot. The Montana history lesson, while fascinating, could’ve been tightened up in favor of a bit more about the Koch family, who get by with just a passing reference. Bullock features more prominently than the other pols—yes, he was the attorney general who tried to keep Montana’s corporate-money ban intact after Citizens United and now he’s the governor trying to clean up the mess—but it would’ve been nice to see a bit more of Jones, who makes a convincing conservative argument about the toxicity of corporate money.
Still, if you’ve been bothered by any political developments since the Citizens United ruling came down, you’ll find common cause in Dark Money. You never know when another flock of geese are going to land in that cesspool.