Any documentary that ends in a website URL—or language like “Join The Movement” or “Learn More”—has only the slimmest chance of being any good at all, because good documentaries have trouble accommodating propaganda, even of the most well-meaning and productive kind. Merchants Of Doubt, the latest blood-boiler from Robert Kenner, who had a hit with 2008’s Food, Inc., again turns to the world of corporate will and its deleterious effects on the planet. And he once more has the backing of Participant Media, a production company founded by eBay’s Jeffrey Skoll, and largely dedicated to supporting films that advance a progressive social agenda. On the table this time: the shills who occupy Washington think tanks, or appear on television or before governmental committees, to stoke confusion over matters of science that have been settled. Think global warming is a real threat, and human beings are responsible? The jury isn’t in on that.
Though Kenner’s slick graphics and attractively photographed talking heads call Errol Morris to mind, his methods are significantly less subtle. The entire framing device for Merchants Of Doubt is a big fat metaphor, following a professional magician who shares some of his tricks for pulling focus from the audience so they miss his sleight-of-hand. (Cue slow-motion computer graphics of cards flying through the air.) There’s no missing Kenner’s point here, and the worst of it is that the magician is the only truly “cinematic” touch his film has to offer. The rest of it just supports the central thesis through scientists, reporters, politicians, and other talkers who either know the facts, have worked to expose the charlatans, or have at one time been charlatans themselves. Some of the revelations are fascinating. But do they really call for a movie?
The answer to that rhetorical question is “no,” because Merchants Of Doubt already exists as a book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, and the film merely gives their ideas a bigger bullhorn. Kenner starts by detailing the chicanery in Big Tobacco, which understood as early as the 1950s that smoking caused cancer and other health issues, but tried various successful tacks to muddy the data. (Footage of a Philip Morris executive who likens the harmfulness of cigarette smoking to the overconsumption of applesauce is particularly absurd.) Big Tobacco’s resistance to regulation of any kind is best expressed through its lobbying for putting harmful “flame-retardant” chemicals into furniture, rather than designing cigarettes to extinguish on their own, so they won’t cause fires.
Two Chicago Tribune reporters, Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe, spent two years exposing the flame-retardant scam—and the backers of its group, called Citizens For Fire Safety—but other cons are proving more resilient. The bulk of Merchants Of Doubt is given over to the corporate-financed battle against taking action on global warming. Shills like Marc Morano, a professional liar whose vanity is as conspicuous as the nonsense he’s peddling, talk about strategies to raise enough skepticism over settled science that disputes over the very fact of global warming will shut down debate on taking any action about it. Once the science becomes tied to ideology and politics—e.g. associating environmental crusaders with socialism (“like a watermelon: green on the outside, red in the middle”)—polluters have won the argument.
Kenner doesn’t get away from stale, talking-heads conventionality until he follows Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina who lost his seat to a primary challenger for acknowledging climate-change science. When Inglis tries, unsuccessfully, to convince a conservative talk-radio host from Mississippi, Merchants Of Doubt suggests a deeper pathology at work about the human capacity to filter out all but the truths that reinforce our beliefs. That’s a more fertile and more enigmatic avenue for the film to explore, but Kenner has devoted himself to a revelation that isn’t much of a revelation—that corporations obfuscate the full truth to protect their interests. The armies of the disingenuous are out there on cable news every day. Are they really so hard to identify?