‘Merchants of Doubt’ Review: Newsflash – Big Business Is Apparently Evil

'Merchants of Doubt'

Movie Rating:


‘Merchants of Doubt’, the latest documentary from ‘Food, Inc.’ director Robert Kenner, takes on the issue of pundits-for-hire who present themselves as scientific authorities to cloud controversial topics (ex: climate change, unnecessary pharmaceuticals, and at one time the tobacco industry). It’s a slickly made piece of work with an important message. However, aside from a few anecdotes and character profiles, there’s really nothing here that anyone with an interest in this subject won’t already know.

The movie is destined to preach to the converted and it’s tough to say how much value there is in that brand of filmmaking. Still, it’s well done despite redundancies, so I suppose there’s no need to complain too much.

The movie opens with a close-up magician explaining his craft – you know, the art of the con and how to manipulate an audience into believing something that isn’t real. Sure, it’s not the most subtle metaphor for media and political manipulation, but it gets the job done and provides Kenner with an amusing structural device that can be used for all sorts of visual razzle dazzle within his agit-prop doc. From there, the movie explores all of the idiotic ways in which the tobacco industry tried to convince the American public that its products weren’t cancer sticks in the 1980s. In hindsight, it looks absurd and even comical. Yet, just like the close-up magician, we can only dismiss buying into that big tobacco contrarian propaganda because we’ve all grown past the age of believing in magic and healthy smoking. Following that setup, we dive into the real issues.

The big one is of course climate change, which continues to be a political hot potato because of the stranglehold that the fossil fuel industry has on the Right side of the political spectrum. Kenner points to false studies that are quoted because they suit an agenda. (The most famous petition of scientists who don’t believe in global warning was proved false long ago since some of the signatures included fictional characters, a Spice Girl, and for some reason a Dr. Michael J. Fox. Yet, it’s still cited as evidence to this day because the people who cling to it can’t be bothered to research or use Google.) Kenner interviews expert “environmental journalists” who openly and joyously admit to taking an empty contrarian stance and making personal attacks (like publicly releasing private email addresses for death threats) purely for money. The filmmaker also finds similarly manipulative cases in almost every industry that could have its profits hurt by facts. Somehow, these political smoke-and-mirror routines work just like old-timey magic. Why? Because people are willing to accept any falsehood if it helps them cling to beliefs that they don’t wish to dismiss.

It’s a clever concept for a movie, and Kenner executes it with style and class. This subject matter could so easily come across as dry and boring, yet the filmmaker avoids that at every turn through stylish visual storytelling, humor, fast-pacing, and artfully crafted montages. It’s a big bowl of political vitamins that goes down like easy entertainment, and that’s not an easy task to for a filmmaker to pull off without undermining the serious intent of the piece.

Some might argue that the filmmaking tactics Kenner employs in ‘Merchants of Doubt’ undermines his argument for unmanipulated truth. Those folks have a point, but thankfully Kenner does his trickery tastefully, and the techniques are so imbedded in the documentary format at this point that any debate over their use is at least 30 years out of date. The real problem with the movie is really just that it’s exposing an issue that peaked in relevance a few years ago. True, this brand of political manipulation still occurs and should be exposed. The trouble is that any viewer who would seek out a documentary like ‘Merchants of Doubt’ already knows that. This movie probably isn’t the best means of exposing this information to the masses. However, it’s a fascinating, frustrating and fun piece of work at its peaks, so Kenner and co. deserve a pass. It’s a good film, just one destined to gather dust on overstuffed Netflix lists rather than making the filmmaker’s intended cultural impact.

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