Dark Money and the Deep Anti-State (film review)

Dark Money – the movie versus the book

When this movie began we wondered if we’d gone into the wrong theater. Beautiful shots of the state of Montana were shown in panoramic glory. But then the camera panned the ‘lake’ left behind by the Anaconda copper mining company when it left the state. 

At the ‘lake’ a guide is telling visitors that wild geese by the thousands have been killed by the acidity in this water that rises higher every year while the EPA has done nothing to remedy the situation.

I couldn’t help but think that Keats got it wrong in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” when he wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Wherever some human beings are involved we do need to know more—much more—to protect ourselves and the things we love.

Because for decades dark money, defined as massive secret funding by wealthy people to promote their libertarian goals in politics, has been radically changing the shape of our American governments.

Many voters in Montana feel deeply about the damage being done in their state, so deeply they have been the leading state in the U.S. to fight the 2010 law, “Citizen’s United” that allowed corporations to donate to state political campaigns.

Montana is discussed in only a few pages of the book Dark Money but these pages are also worth reading. Here is where the film and the book’s stories begins to intersect. The movie is a story that supports the book’s thesis about dark money.

The story of the movie

The film, Dark Money illustrates how significantly Paul Weyrich’s efforts with funding ALEC (American Exchange Legislative Council) in 1973 have borne fruit in Montana in this century.

Mayer’s book discusses how ALEC, funded by Paul Weyrich, the Scaife and Mellon families, and Coors beer family, used their money to buy off politicians in all 50-state-legislatures who were willing to ‘sign on’ to these wealthy libertarians’ goals.

In the movie we don’t see Jane Mayer’s wealthy libertarian conservatives she profiled with short biographies in her book’s preface—instead, we see the people whose lives and livelihoods are being shattered by dark money these billionaires spent on buying Montana politicians.

The story starts with interviews of local politicians who were driven out of the legislature by huge doses of secret out-of-state campaign donations that were funneled through anonymous front organizations that funded highly expensive flyers and ad campaign attacks just days before the election.

Then, a truly dogged, courageous laid-off reporter takes the story on a ride into Colorado through a crack house and and a helpful state official and finally Montana state election officials.

We are shown how the Montana group of Americans for Prosperity Foundation and other front groups were illegally funding a leading state legislator in Montana to literally sign on to agree do what these liberarians wanted in return for campaign donations.

Box loads of documents are shown on screen as volunteer election officials in Montana and the out-of-work reporter go through them.

Here Montana local officials are shown as determined to root on corruption of the state’s politics.  This contrasts with the narrative that flashes back to D.C. to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) led by Don McCann. McCann, the current White House lawyer, chairs a bipartisan group where the three Republicans are voting in a bloc to thwart proposals made by the three Democrats of the Commission.

When the trial of the legislator begins, the documents seized by police in Colorado are featured on screen as exhibits. The local leader of the Americans for Prosperity (AFP) denies prosecutors’ charges against the legislator and his group. However, testimony by a former staff member at the National Right to Work Group (an anti-labor-union front group) combined with the documents suggests a different reality.

The movie interviews people who point out that these dark money front groups coming in from out-of-state use names that are vague or even misleading. Some groups change their names as they find themselves being brought into too much light. Why so much secrecy?

The book, Dark Money, has gone a step further and tried to find the who was behind the names given to right-wing charitable foundations, think tanks, and front groups created in the last century. The author cites Friedrich Hayek, a well-known Austrian economist who taught at the University of Chicago in the mid-20th century as bearing a significant impact on libertarians use of secrecy as a political strategy – at least until 2010.

In 2010 the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision made secret donations to political campaigns by wealthy donors legal.

What was not legal was is use of charitable non-profit foundation donation monies for funding politicians’ to take dark money to sign on to support the specific goals of their anonymous donors.

As a result, the court scenes in the movie are full of suspense—particularly since the defense attorney is Scott Walker’s attorney who helped set up the National Right to Work Foundation in Wisconsin—while on the other side, the homeless and out-of-work newspaper reporter and a retired Montana prosecutor fight to prove the legislator guilty of violating state election laws.

Meanwhile, as Montana citizens protest against the out-of-state dark money coming into their elections, some local politicians have taken action to counter the Citizens United decision. They’ve submitted a bill in their legislature for a vote that requires all dark money sources coming into campaigns in their state be disclosed to the public.

When the recording of the roll-call vote results, the movie reaches its dramatic climax.

In closing we again we see Montana, shown in panoramic glory with all of its beauty including even the poisonous waters left behind by the mining corporations who left years ago.

This film, and the book that inspired it, are a wake-up call for every American who cares about the damage being done to our environment, to our citizens, politicians, and to our democracy. See this movie any way you can.