MERCHANTS OF DOUBT (Dir. Robert Kenner, 2015)
Robert Kenner’s follow-up to FOOD, INC., the new documentary MERCHANTS OF DOUBT opening today at an indie art house near me, opens aptly with an illusionist displaying his impeccable slight-of-hand card trick skills to a rapt audience.
The master magician is Jamy Ian Swiss, an associate of Penn & Teller, who identifies himself as an “honest liar.” Swiss gets the theme of the film’s ball rolling when he explains that “it offends me when someone takes the skills of my honest living, if you will, and uses it to twist, and distort, and manipulate people and their sense of realist, and how the world works.”
From there we jump right into a credit sequence montage, set to Frank Sinatra’s “That Old Black Magic,” and decorated with sound bites like “Global Warming is a hoax,” “there is no consensus - this is a myth,” “asbestos is designed to last forever,” and “it is not known whether cigarette smoking causes cancer.”
Inspired by the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Keller and co-writer Kim Roberts take us into the world of phony punditry, in which a small group of so-called experts can have an enormous impact on public opinion.
The roots of what Oreskes and Conway called a “history of manufactured ignorance” can be traced to the 1950s when the tobacco companies, aware of undeniable evidence that smoking was hazardous and highly addictive, hired a public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, to cast doubt on the scientific facts.
Anti-smoking activist Stanton Glantz lays out that “the playbook that they developed to attack science worked for them for 50 years,” and “so other businesses that were faced with regulatory challenges had to look at this and say ‘boy, if this worked for tobacco, we ought to be able to use that playbook too.’”
This is confirmed by the next segment on the Chicago Tribune’s investigation on flame retardants involving journalists Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe, who appear as interviewees; but this is just a prelude to the film’s central focus, the fossil fuel industry’s war on climate science and scientists.
Old cold warriors/climate change deniers Fred Seitz, S. Fred Singer, and William Nierenberg join the growing cast of collected con artist characters the film profiles, as does the slick, slimy Marc Morano, a frequent Fox News regular, and a former Rush Limbaugh producer. Morano casually discusses going after scientists via underground newsletter take-down pieces (later on his blog Climate Depot), and sending vulgar, death threat emails to them.
On the good guy side of the debate, the film gives us prominent climate scientist James Hansen, Skeptic Society Director Michael Shermer (key quote: “Data trumps politics”), earnest environmentalist (his words, not mine) John Passacantando, and the aforementioned co-author of the book, Oreskes, identified here only as “Science Historian,” whose commentary is certainly the most insightful.
However, despite all these fascinating factors, the film peters out roughly an hour into its 96 minute running time as all the major points have been made and what’s left gets pretty tedious in its repetition.
In addition to that grievance - a lengthy ending thread involving former Republican South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis going on a right-wing talk radio show feels tacked on, interviewees throughout are indentified so fleetingly that it’s easy to forget their credentials, and, as much as I love them, the film really doesn’t need pop song punctuation like David Bowie’s “Changes,” and Big Star’s “Don’t Lie To Me.”
Also, the magician stuff is fine in the intro, but, as charismatic as Swiss is, it’s a weak linking device that made me wince every time they return to it.
With a little more time in the editing bay, MERCHANTS OF DOUBT could’ve been the year’s first must-see documentary. As it stands, it’s only two thirds of that.