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Dark Money
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by Jay Seaver

"Explains a tricky concept clearly, and what more do you need?"
4 stars

"Dark Money" is a decent documentary on what can be a confusing minefield of a topic, though maybe not the sort of electrifying one that injects information and understanding directly into the brain. It's useful and informative, of the moment but not likely in any danger of becoming out of date any time soon, and makes a sincere effort to both be fair and seen as fair, which can be hard to do in today's climate. I don't know if it can get the attention of people who aren't already invested in campaign finance reform or if it will make those viewers more passionate on the subject, but it makes an honest effort, and you can't necessarily ask for more than that.

Director Kimberly Reed (and co-writer/editor Jay Arthur Sterrenberg) use the state of Montana as a microcosm to examine how so-called "dark money" - money and resources spent on a political campaign than cannot be easily traced back to its source because it does not go directly to a candidate - distorts American democracy. As a resource-rich but sparsely populated state, Montana was basically owned by the mining companies at the start of the 20th Century, until the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act put a large dent in it. That was one of many laws weakened by the U.S. Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision, and as a result, a great deal of targeted political spending began in the state. Reed follows the stories of John S. Adams, a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune; Deborah Bonogofsky, a candidate for the State House who feels she lost a primary due to a last-minute series of co-ordinated attacks that she, as a first-time candidate in a state where political office is considered to be an avocation rather than a full-time job, was ill-prepared to handle; and Gene Jarussi, the Special Attorney General appointed to prosecute a state senator believed to have won his office illegitimately.

Unlike many making what is basically a non-fiction conspiracy picture, Reed keeps her focus squarely on the narrative, with relatively few contributions from people not directly involved in the stories she's telling. Even some of the people who might be considered outside experts tend to have a story of their own that perhaps could have been connected to the rest had she chosen to go in that direction, though she doesn't force everything to tie together perfectly beyond an odd segue or two. She even uses infographics extremely sparingly, preferring to turn her camera on what her subjects are writing on a whiteboard or seeing as they flip through documents to creating her own animated presentations. It's an interesting and mostly successful choice; she's never seen as undercutting what the people she interviews say, and their ability to communicate these ideas boosts their own credibility. Maybe hers and the film, as well - they're not using the slick, manufactured techniques of the Political Action Committees, but the homespun methods of citizen legislators.

The film does a decent job of using its Montana backdrop as an example, although sometimes gets a bit distracted by other local issues and makes awkward detours when the local situation isn't sufficient, making stops in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. for examples of more extreme applications of these techniques and how the Federal Election Commission has become almost completely ineffective. At times, one does want to follow some big tangents away from the procedural and legal questions, which is part of what makes the electioneering involved so insidious; there are threads in this movie about an open-pit mine so toxic that geese occasionally die there by the hundreds, and a case that is able to be prosecuted in part because junkies stole incriminating papers from a car in Colorado and police found them in a meth house, and those are crazy stories, but the filmmakers generally do a good job of keeping themselves on task

They also do their best to be fair-minded as this topic can be a partisan lightning rod without resorting to misleading "both sides" narratives. Yes, people in both of the United States's major political parties do this, but there's little denying that Republicans are exploiting these rules more than Democrats. It's perhaps canny filmmaking, then, that Bonogofsky is a Republican and still easy or people of all stripes to connect with, while Democrat Attorney General and later Governor Steve Bullock always seems like he's shooting a campaign ad, focusing attention on the problem rather than reinforcing an us-versus-them narrative (Jarussi is presented as improbably apolitical).

From the title cards, "Dark Money" looks to have taken the better part of a decade to make, something amusingly accented by Adams's ever-changing facial hair. The frustrating part about that is that relatively little seems to have improved over that time, and doesn't seem primed to on a national level. That will make this film a useful resource for some time; hopefully people will find it whenever they start wondering about who is paying for a political ad.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=31898&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/09/19 01:01:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  13-Jul-2018

UK
  N/A

Australia
  13-Jul-2018


Directed by
  Kimberly Reed

Written by
  Kimberly Reed

Cast
  (documentary)



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