“Dark Money,” the award-winning documentary film focusing on Montana’s battle over disclosure of campaign funds, hits local theaters this weekend.
The 99-minute movie from filmmaker Kimberly Reed, who grew up in Helena, opens Friday at theaters in Billings, Missoula and Helena and has a one-night-only showing in Bozeman on Friday.
“Dark Money,” filmed largely in Montana, follows the trail of reporters and political figures in Montana as they experience, investigate and attempt to regulate a surge of shadowy campaign spending that began cropping up in legislative and other races a decade ago.
“On its face, it kind of sounds like a snoozer – a documentary about campaign finance?” says John Adams, a reporter and founder of the Montana Free Press and a key figure in the film. “But what we’ve seen, all over Montana and where it’s screened and all over the country, is that average people … go out of that theater exhilarated.”
The film had its premier at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah early this year and its Montana premier in Missoula in February.
PBS bought the distribution rights to the film this spring. It’s opening in theaters this week and will be shown nationally on PBS this fall.
The filmmaker, Adams and other figures involved with the movie will attend some of the Montana showings this weekend for post-screening question-and-answer sessions.
The term “dark money” refers to spending on advertisements, mailers and other material to influence campaigns, and whose source is difficult to trace.
The Montana Legislature passed a landmark law in 2015, known as the Disclose Act, that attempts to regulate this type of and other campaign spending, requiring reporting on its donors and where it’s spent.
Passage of the law and the people who pushed for it feature prominently in the film.
Many of the political figures in the film are Democrats, including Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
But Reed and Adams said much of the credit for taking on “dark money” in Montana goes to Republicans, who pursued the initial complaints that helped expose the source of campaign spending here and who supported the Disclose Act.
“One of the things the film shows is this sort of battle within the Republican Party, something that (Montana reporters) have covered for the last seven to 10 years,” Adams said. “Some of these folks who stood up against dark money and engaged in these battles in the House and Senate, they were Republicans.”
One of them, state Rep. Rob Cook of Conrad, is in the film and will be at Q-and-A sessions in Helena this weekend.
Cook told MTN News that he hopes people of all political persuasions will see the film, and not consider it a partisan attack on one party or the other.
“If you care about democracy, or our republic, there isn’t a more important issue,” he said. “If (political spending) is unlimited, and it can also be anonymous … will that allow us to retain our democracy?”
Reed says she was drawn to the issue in the wake of Citizens United, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said campaign spending by corporations cannot be limited.
“Once I dug into the story a bit more, I realized that Montana was probably the best case study of campaign-finance issues in the country, because we could actually connect the dots … that let us show how deceptive dark-money groups work,” she said.