If phrases like “campaign finance law” and “federal election commission” make you immediately wander away to a Caribbean island in your mind, please come back. Money’s subject — the shadowy impact of corporate spending on American politics — may feel supremely PBS (which it is), but Kimberly Reed’s taut documentary is also damning, clear-eyed, and as gripping as any John Grisham thriller.
Most casual news consumers are probably aware of Citizens United, a deeply controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling that decided, essentially, that corporations were people too, by defining their political spending as a form of free speech. For many detractors that was more than a Constitutional reach; it was a willful misreading, and an open invitation to essentially buy influence in federal elections with bottomless (and often completely anonymous) corporate dollars.
What the movie — which isn’t based on Jane Mayer’s 2016 bestseller of the same name, though it makes a pretty excellent companion piece — looks at specifically is a state that saw a lot of this coming more than 100 years ago: Montana. Blessed with a surfeit of natural resources and a relatively small population, its residents witnessed the rise of pay-to-play politicking when one of their so-called Copper Kings essentially bought himself a seat in the House of Representatives — and they subsequently passed a 1912 law that made it one of the toughest places in the nation to purchase political influence.
Post-Citizens United, a handful of dedicated Montanans have continued to fight that fight via independent commissions, watchdog journalism, and the court system: People like John S. Adams, an investigative reporter who looks a little bit like Jeremy Renner and who offers a sort of narrative frame to the story, doggedly pursuing the unchecked millions that pour into candidates’ coffers and also seem to funnel increasingly into voters’ mailboxes, flooding them with misleading or straight-up false information.
Where the money leads, more often than not, is pure mendacity: fixed races, environmental disasters, in-the-pocket politicians and judges who push agendas clearly against public interest. In other words, a government that functions less like a democracy than a series of private, unregulated business opportunities bought and sold to the highest bidder. (Bidders that, as several talking heads point out, may not even be American at all).
This is real white hat-black hat stuff, but Reed makes sure with her methodical, unshowy direction that all that moral certainty feels earned; so does the arc of the climactic court battle. As the movie makes depressingly clear, the war on dark money may a long way from won, but at least there’s still some light in this fight. A–