News of Russian interference in US elections has overshadowed the flood of unlimited corporate campaign contributions following the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. As seen in Kimberly Reed’s engrossing, lucid, and unsettling documentary, “Dark Money,” it’s a problem that hasn’t gone away. It opens Friday at the Kendall.
Reed investigates efforts in an unlikely place to combat this challenge to democracy — the deep-red state of Montana. Significantly, many of those victimized and fighting back are conservative Republicans. Deep-pocketed and anonymous outsiders have targeted them in primaries because they are not “conservative” enough — in other words, they are unwilling to cater to those outsiders’ plans to exploit the state’s rich resources.
Montana has had experience before with corporations corrupting its politics in order to despoil the land for profit. Over a hundred years ago, the Anaconda Copper Company bought off those in local government to allow them carte blanche in digging underground mines. The company also operated the largest copper mine in the world, which has since become a toxic lake that continues to kill wildlife and pollute the groundwater.
Finally, people got fed up with this kleptocracy; and in 1912 the state passed the toughest campaign finance law in the country. All that was undone by Citizens United, and when Montana challenged the decision — the only state to do so — the court denied its case. The decision, written by the same majority that had prevailed before, was only half a page long.
But voters in Montana fought back against the vast resources of the Koch brothers and others who hid themselves behind bogus political action committees with rabble-rousing names like Mothers Against Child Predators. Debra Bonogofsky, who ran in the Republican primary for a state congressional seat and saw all her door-to-door campaigning undone by an overwhelming, last-minute smear campaign, knew someone was not playing fair. Other Republicans faced similar tactics in their primaries. They banded together to expose the truth and inform their fellow Montanans of the danger to their proud tradition of fair elections.
Some vindication came in the form of a criminal case against a state senator who violated one of the few remaining campaign finance regulations. The Capra-esque cast of heroes seeking justice includes John Adams, an investigative journalist who, after being laid off by his local paper, operated his own website from his van, and Gene Jarussi, a crack trial lawyer who came out of retirement to work pro bono.
Reed follows the proceedings as they happen and builds the suspense of a top-notch courtroom drama. Though the outcome pales before the immensity of the threat to our institutions, it is a microcosm of what real citizens united can accomplish.
Directed by Kimberly Reed . Written by Reed and Jay Arthur Sterrenberg. At Kendall Square. 98 minutes. Unrated.