Corporate dirty dealing
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In "All the President's Men," the brilliant Robert Redford-produced drama about the insidious forces behind the 1972 campaign to reelect President Nixon, the injunction is heard to "follow the money." That film was a fact-based political thriller whose thesis was that big money controlls our elections and threatens our democracy.
The new documentary "Dark Money" (opens Friday) argues that the Watergate-era reforms addressing the Nixon scandals have been eclipsed by more sinister efforts by corporations (and possibly foreign governments) to rig the system through the use of huge amounts of untraceable funds, allowing donors to bypass voters and handpick candidates sworn to do their bidding.
Out LGBTQ director Kimberly Reed takes us to the geographic epicenter of the crisis, showing us more about the state of Montana than any of us might have thought we needed to know. Reed explains that Montana's history of corporate dirty dealing extends back to the age of the Robber Barons, who desecrated the landscape in the search for copper. One of the most disturbing images from "Dark Money" is the sight of toxic pools in which migrating birds perish.
In her director's statement Reed recalls the moment she heard a radio report describing the 2010 Supreme Court decision ("Citizens United") that held that "corporations are people, and money is speech." Thus campaign money reforms were judged to be an unconstitutional burden on free speech. Ironically for fans of retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, his vote was part of the five-to-four majority upholding "Citizens United." A fascinating aspect of the film's story is the division it finds within the ranks of Montana Republicans. Several moderate GOPers blame the billionaire Koch Brothers for their efforts to weed the state Republican Party of all who opposed their plans.
"Dark Money" resonates with quirky real-life characters, including a dogged investigative reporter, John Adams. Let go by his paper The Great Falls Tribune "due to re-structuring," Adams sells his possessions and lives out of his car in order to stay on the story; Ann Ravel, an Obama pick for the Federal Election Commission who discovers that a vote in the lock-step Republican faction on the commission blocks any opposition to the corporate agenda; Art Wittich, a powerful pro-Koch Bros. Republican Senate Majority Leader whose corruption trial is one of the film's few hopeful moments; and Steve Bullock, a crusading politician who challenges "Citizens United" before the Supreme Court.
Credit Reed for telling a complex tale as if it were a page-turning thriller. The film's lessons include the reminder that even our heroes such as pro-gay Justice Kennedy have their own dark sides, and that libertarian views that frown on sodomy laws can also favor less savory goals.
This documentary's most valuable lesson is that the battle for democracy is never over, and there aren't any timeouts. Those of us who didn't see Trump coming may also miss more sinister changes in the landscape. This Sundance-heralded doc is at times a lot of fun, but it never lets us forget that the joke could be on us.