The clandestine campaign to bend the will of public opinion is scrutinized in the captivating documentary Merchants of Doubt.
Are you fascinated by magicians and their ability to pull off the seemingly impossible? For centuries, the best magicians have mastered the art of misdirection and human psychology — all in the name of entertainment. Countless companies and entrepreneurs have utilized the same tricks to entice us and keep us interested in their products, sometimes to deleterious effect.
Director Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) delves into the murky world of corporate messaging at its most devious. The film shows the distinct, but often seemly, parallels between magicians looking to make us smile and profiteers looking to keep their coffers full at any cost. Kenner’s primary focus is climate change and how corporate interests have so deftly raised doubt in the minds of everyday citizens over the objections and warnings of our smartest climate scientists.
Kenner uses the magic comparison to maximum import, deconstructing a highly complex topic into its most basic elements. His story begins in the 1950s with big tobacco. It was then that they first understood, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the product they were selling was harmful to their own consumers. What response could they possibly take? It turns out that a little magic was called for in the form of a massive public relations campaign. Kenner provides all of the details of exactly how the tobacco industry turned their own imminent death sentence into a decades-long reprieve. The specifics behind their miraculous turnaround became industry legend, quickly mimicked by other sectors facing similar challenges. Companies falling under scrutiny as a result of climate change initiatives are just the latest to invoke Houdini-like tactics.
Like Kenner’s undressing of the food industry, the film combines a compelling argument with exceptional footage and some strong production values. Its biggest strength is its unrelenting narrative approach. We watch as world-renowned scientists find their work ridiculed by self-anointed, industry-paid “experts.” Their own words and actions are Kenner’s most damning evidence against them.
The film’s biggest fault is its failure to cover the issue from both sides. This isn’t about a few greedy men looking to exploit the world. Reality is rarely that simple. The result is another powerful film destined to preach to the polarized choir. The most ironic thing about the film is that those who need to hear its message most are already under the spell of the master magicians.