Dark Money

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Dark Money Movie Poster Image
Excellent political docu has infrequent profanity.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 99 minutes

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Positive Messages

Documentary shows the power, importance, and necessity of investigative journalism and citizen activism in order to combat the outsized influence of "dark money" spending in political campaigns in the United States. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

As a dedicated investigative journalist, John S. Adams uses his profession as a force for societal good, "following the money" to uncover who is behind the funding of "dark money" that has been financing Montana elections in recent years in the wake of the Supreme Court's very controversial "Citizens United" ruling. Journalists, lawyers, government employees, and citizen activists fight for what they believe in, taking on those seeking to bend democracy to their will. 


Infrequent profanity. A politician tells a representative of the Koch Brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity that he is as "full of s--t as a Christmas goose." "Bitch," "ass," "pissed off." 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Bottle of beer next to a man while he's writing on his laptop. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Dark Money is a 2018 PBS documentary about the dangerous influence of "dark money" on political campaigns in America. The documentary was filmed in Montana, and discusses Montana's history with fighting the outsized influence of powerful corporations and the wealthy to influence policy in the state, how they fought it then, and how the controversial "Citizens United" Supreme Court decision has made this an issue again for Montana. Infrequent profanity includes "s--t" and "bitch." The documentary interviews those who see unlimited campaign funding from unknown sources and powerful interests to be damaging to democracy, as well as those who see laws that try to curtail this influence as government overreach and an infringement of free speech. Families can use this documentary as a springboard to discuss the issue from all sides, and what they believe is the solution. Also, for aspiring journalists, this documentary shows the importance and necessity of a free press and investigative reporting for a functioning democracy. 

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What's the story?

In Montana in the early 20th century, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company ruled the state. They bought off the state's politicians and even the local newspapers, giving the corporation free rein to pursue business that was highly profitable for them, but also environmentally catastrophic for Montana. To this day, the waters around their mines are as acidic as stomach acid, and kill thousands of migrating geese each year. In response, Montana passed some of the toughest campaign finance laws in the country, limiting the amounts corporations could donate to campaigns and effectively eliminating all outsized influence of outsiders seeking to make a buck on resource-rich Montana without caring for the long-term consequences of their actions. After nearly 100 years as law, the Supreme Court's controversial "Citizens United" decision effectively took these laws off the books. Corporations and special interests, often with vague names and completely-unknown financial backers, were again given carte blanche to send unlimited resources to the Montana politicians most friendly to their interests. DARK MONEY explores what has been happening in Montana, and how some state officials and investigative reporters have tried to fight back against what they see as a threat to democracy and a potential repeat of the mistakes of the past. 

Is it any good?

This excellent documentary shows the ramifications of the Supreme Court's highly controversial "Citizens United" decision in 2010. Using Montana as both a unique situation and a microcosm for what many states are now facing, the documentary shows the trickery, deception, and mystery behind those seeking to unduly influence elections. With "dark money," it's difficult to determine where the money is coming from, to even know if it's money from foreign powers. While the documentary gives space to those who see unlimited campaign contributions from the Koch Brothers and their ilk as a matter of free speech and liberty, Dark Money also shows that this is a cause for concern among both Democrats and Republicans alike. 

The biggest issue with Dark Money is the timing of the release. It was filmed over the past several years and released in the summer before the 2018 election, an election that seemed to suggest more solutions to the problem of dark money than what's discussed during the documentary. For instance, many candidates campaigned and won (or were at least very competitive) and managed to raise millions without accepting a dime of special interest money. Individual contributions skyrocketed. While not necessarily the answer, it does reveal that people are aware of the problem, and willing to reach into their pocketbooks to effect change on their own terms rather than simply allowing billionaires to enact agendas. Regardless, Dark Money does restore some faith that some public officials aren't content with the skewed system, and provides a reminder of the power of muckraking investigative journalism to bring the deliberately-hidden machinations of power into the light. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about political documentaries. How does Dark Money compare to other political documentaries you've seen? 

  • How is Montana shown as both a unique case and a microcosm of what's happening in the rest of the country with this issue? 

  • Many lament "bias" in the media and in how issues are presented. Should both sides be presented in issues in matters of fact versus opinion? Is it possible for the media to be factual and objective in its reporting? How does thorough, fact-based, and heavily-researched investigative journalism cut through the spin of politicians and those seeking to advance an agenda? 

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