Follow the money: Review of indie documentary Dark Money

Review: Dark Money

Dir: Kimberly Reid

There’s a saying that if you want to see why decision makers take the decisions that they do, you need to follow the money. This is as true in politics as anywhere else. The trouble is that small and large court decisions and laws passed over many years have made it almost impossible to follow the money in the United States political system. Dark Money, directed by Kimberly Reid, is a forensic investigation into the shocking and vital truth of how American elections are bought and sold.

 The issue of election campaigns awash with money is not going to go away. In Australia, we recently saw Clive Palmer dump $60 million on advertising in the lead up to the Federal Election. There are various reports about what exactly his cash bought for him but we can be sure he’s not trying to bolster democracy. As long as we rely on politicians to make laws about appropriate political donations, we are going to have price tags on elections.

 

In the US, 66% of participants in a 2015 Survey on American’s Views on Money in Politics believed that wealthy people have more influence on the election process. The real problem is not necessarily people like Palmer who ostentatiously spend on their own interests, it’s the growing number of nondisclosing organisations that accept donations and then spend that money on getting their favoured candidate elected through grass roots letterboxing and social media posts, spreading unfounded allegations about their competition. These donations are known as dark money. This sort of under-the-radar advertising is almost impossible to track back to a particular candidate. It’s equally difficult to combat the outright lies that are spread before it’s too late and the election is all done and dusted.

Protesters against dark money in Washington DC, from DARK MONEY a PBS Distribution release

Dark Money starts and ends in Montana. The State of Montana was the first US state to fight back against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. This decision allowed corporations and not for profit organisations to spend unlimited amounts of money on election campaigning and to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates. There is no requirement for the organisations to state any political affiliations or to justify the claims they make in their advertising material.

John S Adams explains the flow of dark money, from DARK MONEY a PBS Distribution release

 The story of Dark Money is told through a series of interviews with a huge range of people. Reid talks to Republican and Democratic politicians, lawyers, directors of organisations, Commissioners, journalists, voters, and academics, among others. Much of the narrative revolves around journalist John Adams. He begins tracking the story when he was reporting for the Great Falls Tribune and continues his investigations as an independent reporter when he is made redundant from the paper. Adams acts as a pseudo narrator. Sometimes he is filmed interviewing the subjects and sometimes he isn’t. It’s his quest that keeps the narrative on track.

 

This is an important film and it’s beautifully pieced together. The cinematography is crisp and the sound is clean. The opening interview in the grain fields of Montana speaks to just how fundamental the story is to every citizen. It impacts everything from food production to the environment to gun control, taxes, and immigration. If politicians can legislate about it, dark money can influence it.

Montana Commission of Political Practices building, from DARK MONEY a PBS Distribution release

 The only criticism of Dark Money that I have is that it is very journalistic. It neatly places one piece of information after another in the way that a long form article might unfold in a broadsheet newspaper. This gives it a measured pace. There isn’t much texture to the storytelling style. Perhaps this pace is what is needed to make sure that all the relevant pieces fall into the right place but I found that it created unnecessary distance. It was sometimes hard for me to stay in the story.

 

Pacing decisions aside, Dark Money has a cracking story to tell. It should be essential viewing for everyone who is interested politics, money, or advertising. Actually, it is essential viewing for everyone.


Dark Money is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. For session times and more details go to the MDFF website.

For more information about Dark Money drop past the Dark Money website.