The documentary “Dark Money” turns a story about campaign finance into a political thriller. Beyond that — in a veritable magic trick in these divisive times — viewers may well find themselves rooting for politicians who don’t share their political views.
“Dark Money,” which opens Friday in Los Angeles, delves into a seemingly nonpartisan issue: the use of anonymous funds to influence political campaigns on both sides of the aisle.
Acclaimed director Kimberly Reed (“Prodigal Sons”) first became interested in the topic after Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that political spending was a protected form of free speech. “I joked around for years that I was going to change my name to Cassandra, because nobody was listening to my prophecies of doom,” said Reed, speaking by phone from the Nantucket Film Festival. “You could just see that campaign finance was going to get worse and worse, and I watched it happen every election cycle.”
The outcome has been even grimmer than she imagined. In addition to the flood of corporate money that funded super PACs, a more insidious tidal wave started to wash over the country in the form of anonymous donations, or “dark money.” Groups with generic names like “American Tradition Partnership” began influencing campaigns without anyone knowing where the money came from.
Looking for a way into the challenging material, Reed found it in the unlikeliest place: her home state of Montana.
The reliably red state went for Donald Trump by 20 points in 2016. But Montana also has an independent streak, having sent Democrats to the Senate and governor’s office. During the 2012 Senate race, more corporate money was spent there per capita than anywhere else in the country. “The airwaves were just blanketed” with ads, Reed recalled. She was horrified by the development, because she knew her history.
A fourth-generation Montanan, Reed had first learned the cautionary tale of the Copper Kings in grade school. Industrialists who controlled the state’s rich copper mines, they bought up local newspapers and politicians, openly bribing everyone to do their bidding. Outraged, the state’s citizenry passed the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, cleaning up their elections. The act protected them for 100 years.
Then came Citizens United, and Montana was forced to fight for its rights. “In that process, I had gotten enough of that in my craw that I just wanted to figure out what’s at the bottom of this,” Reed said, so she headed back to Montana to follow the state’s fate through next three election cycles.
“It was a way for me to put a human face on what seemed to be a very complicated but important story,” she noted. “Make it about people, not pie charts.” Her longtime connections to the state helped, as did “bootstrapping it” by staying at her mother’s home and using the family car.
In the film, Reed celebrates the everyday heroes who are fighting the wave of corporate cash that influences elections. Folks like Montana’s commissioner of political practices, Jonathan Motl — who worked to keep elections clean with a woeful lack of funding — and Republican state Legislature candidate Debra Bonogofsky — who started looking into dark money when her campaign was attacked — fight bravely against a huge, secret foe.
But it’s John S. Adams, a journalist diligently following the untraceable money trail, who quickly becomes the star of the film. Reed met him in the course of her research, and the two shared information, but it took her almost two years to persuade the reporter to appear on camera.
“I don’t even like the sound of my own voice, let alone my entire likeness on camera,” Adams said, laughing. “Kim is a remarkable person, a really honest and straightforward person. I felt she would represent the subject well and responsibly, so I basically agreed to do it as a favor — not realizing at the time that I would become a primary subject of the film.”
“He’s definitely the lens through which we see the story develop,” Reed said. “I thought a lot about ‘All the President’s Men,’ and how that film was really modeled after following the reporters.”
She followed Adams through personal trials as well. Facing a career crisis during filming, he became an independent journalist and moved out of his house to save on expenses. Reed was back home in New York the night he packed up to leave, so she asked him to record himself.
“He’s holding up his cellphone on one side of the garage, with me on the other side of the garage Skyping with him,” Reed said. It makes for a poignant moment in the film. “I never thought that footage would see the light of day,” Adams said.
What he and most of the film’s other participants share is “a fundamental sense of fairness” that Reed finds common to Montanans.
“I think that is rooted in the fact that we’re living in a huge, beautiful, rugged state, where now and then you’re going to have to depend on your neighbor to pull your car out of a ditch or give you a place to stay when your electricity goes out. When you’re in an environment like that, you can’t let political or philosophical divisions get in the way of treating each other with some humanity,” she said. Dark money runs counter to that attitude. “If you don’t even have the courage to stand up and take a different position, if you’re just going to sneak around and attack people in the dark, that’s not fair.”
If fairness is crucial to state elections, she added, “it certainly holds true with foreign money coming into the most important election in the land.” Former Federal Election Commission Chair Ann Ravel appears in “Dark Money” to provide a depressing counterpoint to Montana’s battle. “That’s why it’s such a good movie,” Ravel said, “because Kim juxtaposes what’s happening on the federal level with the hopeful side in Montana and in other states.”
Ravel wasn’t just surprised that the movie was so effective — she couldn’t believe it was even made. Ravel had no idea who Reed was; she had agreed to the interviews “because I cared about the issues of transparency, so I don’t care if it’s on YouTube or wherever it is, I’ll talk to anybody.” Ravel gave it no more thought until Reed told her the film got into Sundance. (It went on to win the Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award.)
“My hope is that once this film is seen by a much larger audience across the country, then it really could have the power to make a difference,” Adams said. “I never would have imagined, when Kim started out, that that was something she could possibly achieve. But I think she has.”