Film Review: Merchants of Doubt

by Carrie Kahn on March 13, 2015

No doubt about it: Kenner’s new film is mediocre

Physicist and climate change skeptic Fred Singer makes his case in Merchants of Doubt.

Physicist and climate change skeptic Fred Singer makes his case in Merchants of Doubt.

Documentarian Robert Kenner, who deservedly earned an Oscar nomination and several other awards for Food Inc., his last documentary, unfortunately doesn’t retain the same level of quality in his newest film, Merchants of Doubt. The picture, inspired by a book of the same name by science writers Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, doesn’t even come close to covering the range of topics promised by the book’s subtitle (which Kenner wisely drops): How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

That title indicates an in-depth exploration of master spin doctors at work — perhaps a muckraking exposé of the industry publicity machine in action, focusing on a wide variety of topics of interest to consumer health and welfare. What Kenner gives us, instead, however, is a film that is 10% interested in only two other non-global warming topics (tobacco and flame retardants), and 90% interested in global warming. As such, the film is a virtual retread of An Inconvenient Truth, and offers nothing new on the subject.

The film starts compellingly enough, with a look at the tobacco PR wizards who came up with the idea of emphasizing doubt as a way of rebuffing increasingly solid scientific facts that could potentially destroy tobacco product sales. The tactic — to not outright deny claims of harm, but to simply say that unfavorable data were either not enough, or not convincing — worked so well that, according to the film, other industries were inspired to follow this “doubt playbook.”

The film then looks briefly at the flame retardant industry, which modeled its PR campaign on tobacco’s response, and employed similar methods of creating doubt and fear. Such tactics include using planted PR or corporate shills to set up fake, earnest-sounding consumer protection groups and think tanks, whose ultimate goal was to promote the very products they claimed to be crusading against.

After spending a cursory amount of time on these two topics, though, Kenner quickly turns to the issue of global warming and global warming skeptics and deniers. While the subject is interesting and galling, to be sure, ultimately Kenner doesn’t present any new revelations that Al Gore didn’t already discuss in a much more sophisticated and clear manner in his 2007 Oscar winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Marc Morano, dialed into the PR machine.

In contrast, for example, Kenner employs a rather heavy-handed scene transition device of cutting to a real-life magician performing, and then discussing, sleight-of-hand card tricks. The metaphor is beyond obvious, and might have been excusable and charming if used once at the film’s beginning, but Kenner maintains this throughline, and cuts to the magician repeatedly. As a framing technique, this analogy quickly wears thin, and starts to feel clunky and stale.

The film, however, is not totally without any entertainment value. Many of the featured interviews are thoroughly engaging; Bob Inglis, a former Republican Congressman from South Carolina, for example, talks about his gradual shift from denying man-made climate change to not only accepting it, but also to trying to persuade his colleagues to join him in his belief. As such, he comes across here a bit like the Don Quixote of global warming.

On the opposite side, Marc Morano, who runs the website Climate Depot — which maintains that climate change is a myth — actually might be the most intriguing guy in the entire film. He’s a former door-to-door salesman who is unapologetic and totally forthright about the techniques he and his colleagues use. Despite — or, rather, maybe because of that — he comes across as incredibly likable. You can tell he’s in the high-stakes PR game for the rush, and you get the impression that he would work for whatever side paid him the most, or offered him the most fun, difficult challenges. Somebody ought to make a documentary about this guy; now that would be worth watching.

But, unfortunately, such captivating interviews aren’t enough to sustain the viewer’s interest in this film, which is often meandering and repetitive, in addition to coming across as just another polemic. Kenner does succeed in casting doubt on the doubters, but, for better or worse, in doing so, his film often feels just as strident and unyielding as the skeptics it criticizes. Of course, that’s not to say that these folks don’t deserve criticism — they absolutely do — but Kenner’s attempt is too superficial and lightweight to do the job convincingly.

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Merchants of Doubt opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinema.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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