Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money investigates the malign influence of untraceable corporate cash on American civic life. It does so through the example of Montana, a state whose long-standing attempts to curtail oligarchic control of its political institutions have been upended by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which permitted nearly unlimited injections of cash into elections big and small. Demonstrating the power of corporations and billionaires to effectively buy elections through phony front groups, massive ad buys, and deceptive mailers, Reed’s documentary tells an undeniably important story, one that anyone concerned about American democracy, such as it is, would do well to understand.
The problem, however, is that Dark Money is a fundamentally uncinematic tale, centered for the most part on documents, emails, money transfers, and secret meetings. Reed positions crusading journalists, fair-minded regulators, and politicians who’ve rejected corporate cash as the heroes of her drama, but the villains—the billionaires funding dark-money PACs and the corrupt candidates who accept their assistance—remain mostly abstract. In large part, that’s because no one really knows who’s behind much of this money, and the ones who have been identified surely wouldn’t speak to Reed.
Reed lays out a lot of complicated information with admirable clarity, helping us to understand the significance of such arcane institutions as the Federal Election Commission and the Montana Commission of Political Practices. But her approach is too bloodless to make us feel the full weight of the injustices her film identifies. Dark Money ultimately resembles a glorified Frontline episode, a procession of talking-head interviews and B-roll footage of political signifiers like American flags, the Washington Monument, and the Montana state capital building. The result is sober, well-meaning, informative, and dull.
Nowhere are the limitations of Reed’s style more evident than in the film’s focus on the trial of Montana politician Art Wittich, who was convicted of illegally coordinating with a PAC funded by the virulently anti-union National Right to Work Committee. The trial offers the chance to put a face on the hidden world of corruption laid out by the rest of the film, but Reed pulls her punches, placing the focus less on Wittich’s brazen corruption than on the dogged prosecutor who brought him down and the intrepid investigative reporter who kept a spotlight on the case. In her quest to find heroes, Reed misses the point of her own film: that the scandal of our current system isn’t criminal activity, which can at least be rooted out by tenacious watchdogs, but rather the staggering corruption which is now perfectly legal.