Dark Money is a political thriller documenting the influence of corrupt money on the elections in a state, Montana, that is a microcosm of America as a nation.
Directed by Kimberly Reed, who is known for Prodigal Sons, an introspective film about the impact of her gender transition on her family and friends, the film takes a meticulous approach at tracing the hidden players involved in swaying our political future. While these powerful influences may not necessarily be tied with ideology or come from inside our borders, the documentary’s tour de force resides in the persistency of the film’s protagonists to stand up against corporate corruption, from investigative reporter John Adams (The Montana Free Press) to Special Attorney General Gene Jarussi; Montana’s Attorney General Steve Bullock; Commissioner Jonathan Motl; as well as concerned outraged citizens. Uncovering vital truths by following nonprofit corporations over multiple election cycles, the filmmaker shines an unforgiving light on the dirty practices used by super PACs (Political Action Committees) to erode our democracy. This fascinating documentary received the 2018 Sundance Institute / Amazon Studios Producer Award and the David Carr Award for Truth in Non-Fiction Filmmaking.
While history tends to repeat itself, Dark Money reminds us that regardless of the politics of corruption, We the People still have the power to bring change.
Dark Money Trailer
CYNTHIA BIRET: Why did you decide to make this film?
KIMBERLY REED: I heard about the Citizens United decision on the US Supreme Court and I just had to wonder how we got there. They are people who comment on the US Supreme Court who say that Citizens United kind of naturally follows from the Supreme Court jurisprudence that had preceded that. But for me if you just take a step back and think like most Americans did since 2010; it’s consistently been 75 or 80% of the American public that feel the same way I do, and it doesn’t make any sense that corporations are people and have free speech rights and therefore we can spend unlimited money on politics.
In 2012 there was a clash about it in my home state of Montana, and it just seemed that it would be a really good architecture for a really dramatic film. Initially I started following the Supreme Court case where Montana was defending the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912; Mr. Bullock was the Attorney General at the time, so I thought the film might follow the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where we could tell this tidy little story about campaign finance. I was hoping to finish it in 6 months but instead it took 6 years to really get my head around this whole story. Being from Montana, I knew I would have really good access, but I also realized that in 2010 -2012, everybody was talking about Super PACs, because they can donate unlimited money to a campaign. In retrospect I now understand that it was a pilot program engineered and test-driven there; and that even as far back as 2008 it wasn’t just an issue of having unlimited money; it was the anonymous money part that had the potential to really undermine our democracy. You need to follow these types of groups over multiple election cycles to see how they really work. For instance in 2008 there was a group called Western Tradition Partnership that sort of disbanded and reappeared in 2010 under the name of American Tradition Partnership. When it started to look like the case that we were following since 2010 was going to end up in a trial, it became even more interesting.
BIRET: You must have dealt with an enormous amount of material to work with. How did you organize it, and how did this come together?
REED: I had a really fantastic editor his name is Jay Arthur Sterrenberg; he is a member of a co-op Film Production called Meerkat Media. When we were overloaded with work, I was able to expand and bring on some of his other Co-op production partners. It was a very good way for me to keep the overhead sustainable.
BIRET: What was the involvement of the producers with the story?
REED: I had met Katy Chevigny around the time I was doing my previous film, Prodigal Sons. We got in to the Sundance Catalyst; it’s like matchmaking for film financing and it enabled us to set up some kind of investment structure. Katie has also directed before and she’s a really great person and gave me feedback on the story.
BIRET: Incorporating the historical background of Montana fighting against corruption was a very interesting strategy for the architecture of this film.
REED: There really is a very strong historical perspective, and the reason that we started talking about that sort of drama that I had grown up in Montana and had this historical perspective. To kind of boil it down if you live in a really beautiful spot like Montana, you drive to places where you can see that corporations have irresponsibly destroyed be environment in an effort to take the coal resources out of the ground; and I’m being kind of intentionally vague about that because there are a lot of different resources in Montana. When you see the long-term effects or of irresponsible development, then you can really understand why a group of citizens in Montana would resist Citizen United because it’s like hey we’ve seen this before, we have been through this and we don’t want to go back there. Incorporating the episode with the geese dying in mass was a big part of helping people feel this on an emotional level instead of making them feel like they’re listening to a lecture.
BIRET: And it also showed these campaigns contributions very tangible effect on people’s lives because of their effect on the environment.
REED: That’s right; you have to ask why are these people hiding the way they are? Why can’t they just proudly sign a check and put your name on it and let people know that it’s their position? There are actually a couple of reasons. When it comes to real negative nasty ads, the type that politicians don’t want to be associated with, they funnel the money through a dark money group with a real anodyne sounding name that sounds really patriotic so they don’t have to take responsibility for the ad. Usually people don’t want to put their name on issues that have to do with the environment, and there are also a lot of civil rights issues and LGBT discrimination, such as Prop 8 going on in California a couple of years ago.
BIRET: What is interesting is that you are showing that this issue is happening regardless of political parties and ideology.
REED: Yes, and that’s how it plays out in Montana and I’m glad it’s coming through the film. It was important to me to show that this is not a partisan issue, but I don’t want to create this false dilemma and say that the amount both sides are spending is equivalent because if you just look at the amount of spending for the Right, they have recognized dark money as a tool more than the Left has. It’s something that affects all of us and what we saw in Montana is pretty uncommon at the federal level, but at the state level you can find a lot of people who are from the Right. We just feel that it’s just not fair to run campaigns with anonymous money fueling them.
BIRET: You also point out that this money might not be American money at all, and that it could be coming from overseas.
REED: Yes, and the Dark Money loophole is unfortunately a pretty good game plan for a foreign adversary who wants to move American elections. It’s very discouraging and our film is constructed in a way that it talks about this foreign money and influence. Maybe that will be the next film but I think that we will all learn a lot more about this in view of our next election.
BIRET: During your interview with Ann Ravel who worked as a commissioner for the FEC (Federal Election Commission), she brings up the point when she realized that the FEC does not enforce the law.
REED: The person who was the chair of the FEC at the time, Don McGahn, is now the chief legal counsel for the Trump Administration, so all the legal advice is coming from him
BIRET: One amazing character of course is John Adams, the investigative reporter. When did you decide to incorporate him into the film?
REED: Initially I was just studying his reporting and using it as research. I met him in 2015, about two years into the film, and we were just comparing notes and commiserating because we are kind of following the same big story. I realize that this can be an abstract topic and I thought that while digging into his stuff, John Adams would help build a very good narrative structure. He was initially reluctant as journalist always are, because they don’t necessarily want to be part of a story, but I finally convinced him to go on camera and two let us follow the money through him, but when he had to go through major restructuring, it was just obvious that he is emblematic of everything that is going on with the journalism industry and the kind of a vast consolidation that newspapers are going through. So following that story was actually really important because you can’t follow the money without a strong watchdog press. When you see how passionate he is about covering these issues, you appreciate what he is doing, and you also see how much he struggles to keep covering money and politics and finding these corruptions. Having a really strong reporter like John was very important to continue to follow them that thread, and to celebrate what he was doing.
BIRET: One of the most touching scenes in the film is when he finds out that people are coming together to support him and work with him. This story instills hope, because it is so easy nowadays to feel discouraged from reading the news, and your film shows that one person can make a difference.
REED: I studied All The Presidents Men quite a bit, and not only do we see the world through the eyes of these journalists, and that was kind of an inspiring structural device for me and the film inspired generations of reporters, and you can find them through the ranks of the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the LA Times. I hope that our film can inspire people too.
BIRET: I was about to ask you if you had seen that film. It is also inspiring to watch trial lawyer Gene Jarussi who came out of retirement because he was motivated by finding the truth and saving democracy.
REED: I am so glad that you see that sense of hope because I think that Montana is very strong in fighting the issue of campaign finance. Watching Gene fighting and struggling to get to the kernel of this truth, along with Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl who is also working on getting really strong campaign finance laws passed.
In a way it does inspires people to think that all is not lost; there are some issues where there a lot of bipartisan agreement, and we can accomplish a lot even with Citizens United being the law of the land, and with the Supreme Court that we have. Even with so much polarization, there is still some chance where we can move things forward in a widespread agreement.
BIRET: Your film is definitely built like a call to action. What are you working on next?
REED: I would prefer not to talk about what I’m doing next; As far as an update, John Adams is going strong with the Montana Free Press. One of the things we are also doing with the film is to point people towards inn.org (Institute for Nonprofit News), which is an umbrella organization for non-profits journalists who are working similar to John. Sarah Arnold, the star witness of the film said that she fully expect retribution but what did happen, that she changed careers as a result of her testimony in the trial. She is now a data analyst and is trying to keep working in the political realm. Gene Jarussi and Jonathan Motl terms in political practices came to an end, but they are both actually continuing to pursue more cases than the ones we uncovered in all of his investigations. Ultimately it wasn’t just Wittich who was prosecuted by the state; there were a total of nine candidates who were found to have illegally interacted with American Tradition Partnership in the 2010 election cycle.