Dark Money screens at the Roxy Fri., Aug. 10, at 8 PM followed by a Q&A with John S. Adams. Sat. Aug. 11, at 2 PM followed by a Q&A with John S. Adams and Gene Jarussi and again at 8 PM followed by a Q&A with Gene Jarussi and Kimberly Reed.
Filmmaker Kimberly Reed makes clear in her latest effort, Dark Money, that Montana is a state that has been shaped by a history of corporations stripping it of its abundant resources and leaving destruction in their wake. Money flowed out of the state and into corporate coffers with the inevitable gravity of water surging off the continental divide and into the Columbia River. And to turn that water metaphor into something more literal, as Reed does, the tainted waters that plague the city of Butte (aka The Richest Hill on Earth) threaten the entire Columbia watershed, all because of the rapacious nature of corporate interests.
Montanans recognized the issue of corporate manipulation 100 years ago. The Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, passed by voter referendum, banned corporations from contributing to political campaigns. That act buttressed Montana with some of the strongest campaign finance protections in the entire United States. Then, in 2010, almost a century later, came Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that, in some instances, prohibiting corporations from contributing to elections is a restriction of their freedom of speech, and therefore unconstitutional. In the wake of this ruling, Montana became a battleground. With the entire nation watching, a pro-corporate interest organization called American Tradition Partnership sued the state over its 1912 law. How the battle — both at the state and federal levels — plays out is at the center of Dark Money.
Reed’s debut film, the 2008 Prodigal Sons, was a personal story about returning to her hometown of Helena for a high school reunion years after she transitioned from male to female. While that story was deeply personal, the new film is deeply political, and Reed does a fantastic job telling it.
Dark Money (a runner-up for the Big Sky Award at the 2018 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival) shines a bright light on layers of national corruption and elusive, widespread dark money smear campaigns, while keeping a keen focus on the Montana-based narrative. Where Reed most succeeds is in depicting the story as an issue for all voters, Republican or Democrat. It would be easy for more conservative folks to sneer at the film as another diatribe from a lefty do-gooder, but Reed dodges that potential barb by keeping most of her political characters Republican. In particular, she gives space to several Republican lawmakers targeted from within their own party by shadowy and nearly untraceable organizations. It illustrates the consequences of these smear campaigns for Republicans, who often lose elections at the primary level when they’re not on board with their party’s wider agenda.
Another theme of the film is the growing attack on journalists from the far right, largely through corporate ownership of media. During the making of the film, investigative journalist (and former Indy reporter) John Adams is essentially forced out of his job at the Great Falls Tribune. He lives in a truck in an effort to continue pursuing his work reporting on dark money, and eventually founds the Montana Free Press.
Dark Money is a film everyone should see — though it’s difficult to watch without feeling a simmering rage from beginning to end. Reed’s film should be a rallying cry for those of us who care about the future of democracy, to set aside smaller disagreements, join together and take back our country from the oligarchs.