Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Dark Money

A cool thing that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is doing this year is setting up a program where the entire documentary "shortlist" - the 15 pictures that some committee or other chose as the year's best, from which five will be nominated for the Oscar - actually get a chance to play in theaters as a group. Through Thursday, you can go down to AMC Boston Common, pay $5, and see a pretty good non-fiction film. I suspect that this is replacing or supplementing screenings for Academy members, but if so, it's still a cool idea to make them available to the public. The theater's got a lot of screens, it can't hurt the Oscars to give people actual access and insight to the smaller awards, etc. Granted, it was just me and a small handful of other people in the theater for this one, but what do you expect for a 9:30pm show the night of the Golden Globes?

And it's generally good to see these movies in a theater, even though non-Imax documentaries don't necessarily seem like they'd benefit that much from the big screen And maybe the immersive nature isn't as important; I don't know. I do know that it's much easier to be distracted when one is on TV or streaming, or get frustrated when this doesn't match one's personal politics and turn it off. Committing the time and having no distractions is good, though; you learn better and get to the end.

I probably won't be able to get to more in this series, unfortunately - the 6pm/9pm screening times probably work well for people in the city but is not so great when you're coming in from Burlington and it's too cold to hang around downtown (or, worse, go home and then back out). But if it fits your schedule, check it out. Have opinions come Oscar night Maybe learn something, It's $5/pop, one of the better movie deals going in the city right now.

(Now, is something similar with the animated and foreign shortlists too much to hope for…?)

Dark Money

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2018 in AMC Boston Common #9 (documentary shortlist, DCP)

Dark Money is a decent documentary on what can be a confusing minefield of a topic, though maybe not the sort of electrifying one that injects information and understanding directly into the brain. It's useful and informative, of the moment but not likely in any danger of becoming out of date any time soon, and makes a sincere effort to both be fair and seen as fair, which can be hard to do in today's climate. I don't know if it can get the attention of people who aren't already invested in campaign finance reform or if it will make those viewers more passionate on the subject, but it makes an honest effort, and you can't necessarily ask for more than that.

Director Kimberly Reed (and co-writer/editor Jay Arthur Sterrenberg) use the state of Montana as a microcosm to examine how so-called "dark money" - money and resources spent on a political campaign than cannot be easily traced back to its source because it does not go directly to a candidate - distorts American democracy. As a resource-rich but sparsely populated state, Montana was basically owned by the mining companies at the start of the 20th Century, until the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act put a large dent in it. That was one of many laws weakened by the U.S. Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision, and as a result, a great deal of targeted political spending began in the state. Reed follows the stories of John S. Adams, a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune; Deborah Bonogofsky, a candidate for the State House who feels she lost a primary due to a last-minute series of co-ordinated attacks that she, as a first-time candidate in a state where political office is considered to be an avocation rather than a full-time job, was ill-prepared to handle; and Gene Jarussi, the Special Attorney General appointed to prosecute a state senator believed to have won his office illegitimately.

Unlike many making what is basically a non-fiction conspiracy picture, Reed keeps her focus squarely on the narrative, with relatively few contributions from people not directly involved in the stories she's telling. Even some of the people who might be considered outside experts tend to have a story of their own that perhaps could have been connected to the rest had she chosen to go in that direction, though she doesn't force everything to tie together perfectly beyond an odd segue or two. She even uses infographics extremely sparingly, preferring to turn her camera on what her subjects are writing on a whiteboard or seeing as they flip through documents to creating her own animated presentations. It's an interesting and mostly successful choice; she's never seen as undercutting what the people she interviews say, and their ability to communicate these ideas boosts their own credibility. Maybe hers and the film, as well - they're not using the slick, manufactured techniques of the Political Action Committees, but the homespun methods of citizen legislators.

Full review at EFC.

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