The trick with any documentary about complex, arcane legal and political issues is to figure out a way to make them accessible to audiences. With her second feature film, Sundance pickup “Dark Money,” producer-director Kimberly Reed saw a way to engage moviegoers — by scaring them about the role of money in politics as well as offering hope.
Born and raised in Montana, Kimberly Reed made her 2008 debut with “Prodigal Sons,” which detailed her journey back home to Helena for her 20th high school reunion, where she reunited with her buddies on the football team for which she had played quarterback. After producing “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” and “Paul Goodman Changed My Life,” she was so upset by the controversial Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, which allowed corporations unlimited spending in election campaigns, that she wanted to make a documentary about it. Two years later, she saw her way in.
She had always paid attention to Montana politics, and realized that Montana was mounting a viable case that could not only challenge Citizens United but “perhaps repeal it,” she said. “Here’s how we can tell this abstract, financial story, where people can glaze over pretty quickly. I realized I had the access to tell the story.”
In May 2012, as the case was being argued in the U.S. Supreme Court, Reed grabbed a camera and rushed down to Washington, D.C. to film the Court’s opinions. At first she thought it would be “Steve Bullock Goes to Washington,” centered around Montana’s charismatic then-Attorney General who argued the case. “I thought I would shoot for a couple of months and be done with it,” she said. “It did not turn out that way. I was shooting for six years, not six months, as Montana was not able to overturn Citizens United.”
At the start, Reed was using the court case to tell the story of money and politics, but the bigger story was on Montana as a battleground for these issues. “The same group of lawyers behind Citizens United were opening offices in Montana so they could fight Montana’s strong finance laws,” she said. “Having grown up there, I realized there was pushback from citizens who had a long history of resisting corporate exploitation and control of their politics.”
Kids growing up in Montana are taught in grade school about how citizens fought back against the environmentally rapacious Montana Copper Kings, who controlled the state government during the Gilded Age and regained control of their legislature. “I grew up with that skepticism of corporate influence in politics,” said Reed. “I could draw on that, it was also the fundamental issue, going to the Supreme Court.”
Now the same thing was happening with outside corporate groups, many of them controlled by the billionaire Koch brothers, who were hand-picking candidates based on their willingness to tow the party line and vote with their anointed Republican power mongers. “It was rare to see money and politics actually have a clash,” said Reed. “Here was a dramatic clash where you could see the lay of the land. I was in it for the long haul.”
Reed tracked the ongoing battle for three election cycles, interviewing people on many sides of the story, and showed that the fight was more about purifying the Republican party than Republican vs. Democrat. “It wasn’t the unlimited nature of the spending that was the most frightening,” she said. “It was the anonymous nature of the spending. When you don’t know the algorithms, a little bit of anonymous money can be as damaging as a lot when you know where the source of the funding is. We were seeing the impact on Montana of that anonymous spending.”
Over the years, Reed and Gannett’s Great Falls Tribune reporter John S. Adams were both reporting on the unfolding narrative: he was hammering out the day-to-day beats as Reed was “doing the 30,000 foot long slow burn.” Eventually, she asked him to be her “narrator to guide us through this complicated story and see the world though his eyes. I wanted to celebrate the investigative journalism he was doing, which was heroic.” As she tracks Adams, she also follows the inevitable changes in the newspaper industry. (He’s now running his own website, The Montana Free Press.)
Reed’s challenge, with co-writer and editor Jay Arthur Sterrenberg, was to lay out for moviegoers the basic principles of campaign finance, scene by scene. “We taught them the rules of the road in order for them to understand the intricate story,” she said. These were stepping stones to being able to understand what was happening when the film turns into a galvanizing, suspenseful courtroom drama, “knowing that all that would come together in the trial, that was our stopping point, the light at the end of the tunnel. Trials are all exposition. As a storyteller you don’t have to worry about that. The trial brings out evidence.”
Beyond Russian interference in our elections, what conservative interests are doing to control policy state by state is bone-chilling. But Reed also shows how citizens can effectively fight back. “It’s a long game,” said Reed. “For me it’s all about disclosure. Even within the Citizens United decision, the only reason we can spend unlimited money is because we have to disclose and know where the money is coming from. It’s mandated by Citizens United, it’s the law of the land. There’s our solution: being able to follow the money, showing how it happened in Montana, which many people think is an unlikely place for campaign finance reform. We have to make sure that what happened there can happen anywhere.”
Reed was happy when PBS picked up the movie, because she doesn’t want to play only to the liberal elite. “PBS hits more American homes that don’t have to pay for it,” she said. “The issue of money in politics cuts across a wide swath of the American public.” With Netflix and Amazon, Reed thought the film would risk getting “lost in algorithms that push films to those predisposed to agree with our film. I don’t get a lot of Dinesh D’Souza movies recommended to me.”
Getting the movie in theaters and on air this fall before the elections was also crucial. “Things are changing on a dime,” she said. “I am heartened that we’re hearing from people we haven’t heard from before, people running for office. That’s going to extend to people voting in the midterms who don’t typically vote. Sometimes it takes a shock to the system to get people engaged.”