In 2008, just days before the Republican primary in Montana, a lurid postcard landed in one district’s mailboxes. “John Wayne Gacy, ‘the Killer Clown,’” it read, “sadistically raped and murdered nearly three dozen boys and young men.” It also asserted that “John Ward believes that monsters like this deserve to live.” Mr. Ward, a veteran Republican politician running for state office, never had a chance. “Mothers Against Child Predators,” a shadowy entity that had nothing to do with moms, succeeded in disrupting the race.
In her documentary “Dark Money,” Kimberly Reed sets out to shine a light on obscure groups that, with deep-pocketed anonymous donors, have meddled in Montana elections. Scanning the recent past, she explores how and why both the state and citizens fought this meddling, as well as the ominous forces behind it. That killer clown postcard turned out to be bankrolled by dark money, which the Republican state senator Llew Jones defines here as “advertising where you don’t know who’s paying for the ads.” He wonderingly asks: “Who’s paying for this? What are they attempting to buy?”
Over 98 packed minutes, Ms. Reed answers those questions, or tries to. It’s a tricky, complicated story, one that stretches back at least to 1912, when Montana declared that corporations could not make contributions in state elections. This prohibition was challenged in 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled — in the decision known as Citizens United — that the government could not ban corporate spending in candidate elections, rendering state laws like Montana’s potentially unenforceable. Montanans had something to say about that, which is where this movie gets cooking.
Drawing on a raft of experts, Ms. Reed explores how dark money became a political tool and why it matters. One of the documentary’s strengths is that, as it digs into local politics, it also points to the larger national stakes. As Ann M. Ravel, a former chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission puts it succinctly: “Campaign finance is like the gateway issue to every other issue that you might care about — whether it be education or tax reform or foreign policy.” Ms. Ravel also sketches in the past as she discusses the F.E.C. and her own work when she was with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
This section with Ms. Ravel, who’s an engaging presence, typifies what works and what doesn’t in “Dark Money.” Ms. Reed augments Ms. Ravel’s section with archival images (Richard M. Nixon, protesters) that don’t really clarify matters but keep the visuals jumping. Yet as faces and headlines pop on and off the screen, the chronology and the movie’s direction grow fuzzy. Ms. Ravel abruptly shows up in a California news conference announcing “that a record fine has been levied against a dark money network of political nonprofits.” Juicy stuff, even if it isn’t at all obvious yet what California has to do with Montana, never mind what year it is.
Ms. Reed has taken on a vital story in “Dark Money,” which is why it’s frustrating that her storytelling isn’t better. Some introductory text or explanatory narration would have better helped historically ground viewers, who need to juggle a lot of information. When Ms. Reed introduces some time stamps, the chronology and her approach become clearer. Even so, other decisions keep things needlessly murky. Steve Bullock, for one, is identified as Montana’s attorney general for quite some time but has been its governor since 2013 and, more recently, viewed as a presidential hopeful.
And so it goes in a documentary that is by turns engaging, exasperating and confusing. It’s rarely a good idea to remake a movie as you’re watching it, but it’s hard not to think that this one might have been improved by a more straightforward approach, better editing, greater critical distance and some basic information. The billionaire brothers, Charles G. and David H. Koch, for instance, are mentioned rather than actually introduced, an odd choice given that they are a major source of dark money in the United States. And while you might come away from this documentary thinking that only conservatives use dark money in politics, liberals do as well, as ProPublica and others have reported.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes.