Merchants of Doubt is a frustrated and angry documentary, as heated and passionate as similarly themed docs like Chasing Ice and Inside Job. And even though Merchants is a bit too sprawling in scope for its own good, it’s an endlessly engaging film that debunks the “debate” surrounding climate change, shows how toxic our furniture can be due to flame retardants, and mirrors every one of its cases with the malevolence of the tobacco campaigns of yesteryear. The film raises a lot to be upset about, particularly as the U.S. media continues to buy into the idea that climate change experts grow on trees and don’t need doctorates or active scientific work to make claims. For science journalists, it’s infuriating, yet for everyday citizens, it feels increasingly like an accepted norm. Maybe that lessens the film’s dramatic impact. But it never takes away from its multi-layered perspectives that litter the film’s expansive realities. Rather, it demonstrates that documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth should have changed everything. Instead, they just made us hopeful for a more active future when, simply, that future is now.
The film is directed by Robert Kenner, best known for making the terrific documentary Food Inc. back in 2009. His film here tackles the people behind Big Tobacco and pundits of climate change, both of whom have equally slowed progress on their issues over the past fifty years through the use of pseudo-science and doubt. A framing device of a magician showing the audience his tricks demonstrates the connection between the two types of cons. One is based on an audience enjoying being deceived (the magician); the other is deception with malevolent intentions, and one that has harmful effects on the world’s environment (the empty-claimed pundits). Kenner seems to have his biggest beef with the people that are hired by these major corporations that feed the public a debate that does not really exist. They are coined pundits-for-hire, as they have no education in the actual fields that they are arguing but have usually been raised with business or marketing degrees. These people infiltrate the media’s debates surrounding scientific or worldwide issues with the only intention of pushing forward their own agenda and delaying societal progress. It’s beyond frustrating.
That’s obviously Kenner’s intention, although his solution for the issue remains unclear. He presents a variety of viewpoints, including a professor who proves that not a single active scientist believes against climate change and a fascinatingly despicable man that is one of the major corporations’ most active skeptics. The logical presentation of Kenner’s beliefs coming through these individuals makes the heads of major corporations and their vile puppets all the more nonsensical and maddening. How can the public continue to believe something when empirical data fights against it? It explains how the fight against tobacco took as long as it did yet does not begin to explain why climate change is still stalled or pushed aside for “more important” issues. The pessimism is palpable in every frame. While the film is mostly a talking heads variety that features extensive interviews, there’s a sense of narrative force and aggression behind Kenner’s actions. It keeps Merchants of Doubt from being a vapid and soulless documentary; instead, it becomes a hair-pulling, crazy look at public deception.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)