Film Review: ‘Dark Money’ by Kimberly Reed

Anthony Kennedy, who will leave the Supreme Court at the end of this month, has been idolized by some as the principled center of the Supreme Court because he provided the necessary swing vote for marriage equality.

And Kennedy’s proposed replacement, Brett Kavanaugh, may prove to be farther-right than his predecessor (especially if he guts Roe v. Wade). However, Kennedy deserves to be remembered as a fundamentally right-wing justice—this year alone, he used his swing vote to obliterate already-weak public sector unions and uphold President Trump’s racist travel ban.

But perhaps the Kennedy swing vote with the most widespread consequences was in 2010’s Citizens United v. FEC,  in which the Supreme Court determined that corporations effectively have the same First Amendment rights as people, and are therefore entitled to spend lavishly and anonymously on political causes.

While Kennedy isn’t mentioned by name, his Citizens United decision looms over Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money, which documents the effects of the ruling in the director’s home state of Montana, a sparsely-populated and resource-rich target for corporate influence campaigns. Dark Money clearly took years of detailed research and reporting, yet the disorienting pace of current American politics makes the film ridiculously timely. It opens this Friday at Manhattan’s IFC Center, mere weeks after the retirements of both Justice Kennedy and EPA Chief Scott Pruitt.

from DARK MONEY (2018) | Official Trailer HD | PBS Distribution on YouTube

The film begins with, and often returns to, the former Anaconda Copper Mine in the city of Butte, which is now a mammoth open-air pit filled hundreds of feet deep with water that’s the same acidity as human stomach acid. (Scott Pruitt or his successor Andrew Wheeler ought to take a swim if they want to understand the effects of deregulation.) Migrating geese die in the pit by the hundreds, while tourists pay $2 to watch from a platform before visiting the gift shop. The pit’s water is continuously rising, creeping closer to Butte’s neighborhoods.

The Anaconda Mining company was able to create this aberration because its executives all but ran Montana politics around the turn of the century. (One mustachioed manager even bought himself a U.S. Senate seat.) In response to Anaconda’s corruption and pollution, the state’s non-bought-off politicians cracked down on corporate money in politics with a comprehensive 1912 campaign finance law. Anaconda continued trying to destroy the environment, but their governmental influence waned.

Montana’s reforms were, of course, declared unconstitutional by Justice Kennedy and his compatriots 98 years later in Citizens United. Forty-nine states treated this decision as a precedent that applies to state and local elections, but Montana’s leaders objected, continuing to enforce their 1912 law in state and local elections. When a far-right dark money group challenged Montana’s stance, Justice Kennedy and Co. overruled the state in a one-page decision that was about as scathing and insulting as legalese allows. Soon, mailers began appearing in Montanans’ mailboxes, from anonymously-funded fake groups like “Mothers Against Child Predators” and “Taxpayers for Liberty.” They attacked even conservative Republicans for not being far-right enough on issues like the death penalty and abortion.

John S. Adams. Courtesy PBS Distribution.

Dark Money’s story doesn’t lend itself to dynamic visuals—it involves a lot of fluorescent offices and drab courtrooms—but the film often incorporates shots of Montana’s landscape that aren’t just pretty; they serve as reminders of what unrestrained corporate influence puts at risk. Many of the film’s subjects are engaging, too, particularly the journalist John S. Adams, who investigates campaign finance at the Montana Free Press.

In all, Dark Money takes a convoluted, controversial issue and makes it accessible to anyone with a basic interest in American politics. You’ll leave the theatre informed, and probably angry. After all, Citizens United is law, and will certainly continue to be once Kavanaugh is confirmed. Scenes like those in Montana will continue to play out across the country. 

But it’s worth remembering that money alone doesn’t decide elections. The day before Justice Kennedy announced his retirement, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley by double digits, even though he out-fundraised her ten-to-oneOcasio-Cortez and her supporters remind us that money isn’t everything in politics—people matter too. 

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