Merchants of Doubt, a documentary by Robert Kenner, takes up where the 2006 global warming tutorial An Inconvenient Truth left off, probing the dubious annals of climate-change denial and the unholy alliance between corporations, partisan politics, pseudo-science and marketing that has given it traction despite clear scientific evidence and consensus.
As he did with his 2008 film Food, Inc., Kenner lures viewers in with a brisk, bold visual look and engaging narrative techniques — in this case, beginning with a magician who, while explaining the art of misdirection and legerdemain, adds that at least he and his brethren are “honest liars.” The filmmaker neatly juxtaposes that observation with the pundits, proxies and front organizations he’s investigating: out-and-out con men whose dark arts, he maintains, possess no such charm or redeeming social value. (Merchants of Doubt is inspired by the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.)
Kenner traces the roots of their deception to the 1950s and early ’60s, when DDT manufacturers and the tobacco industry began pushing back their critics by falsely insisting that no consensus existed regarding the harmfulness of their products. With the help of such often-controversial public relations companies as Hill & Knowlton, these campaigns successfully passed as fact-based hard news, the invaluable “other side of the story” that an unquestioning press was eager to amplify in the name of fairness and balance.
It’s no surprise that, nearly half a century later, the playbook invented by Big Tobacco and perfected by food and chemical companies should be exploited by energy firms worried about government carbon regulation. But what’s disheartening about Merchants of Doubt is that the strategy still works so effectively, especially in a hyper-partisan, intellectually lazy, spin-addicted 24-7 news cycle.
Even more sobering is how tribal fealty trumps objective reality. Nowhere is that more evident than when a global warming denier, former U.S. congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina, changes his mind, only to be faced with ignominy and the outrage of his fellow Republicans. When Merchants of Doubt isn’t making you mad, it makes you very simply, and overwhelmingly, sad.
Director: Robert Kenner.
Screenwriters: Robert Kenner, Kim Roberts.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 96 minutes. Brief strong language. In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.