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Review: Merchants of Doubt

Ken Korman reviews Robert Kenner’s spin doctor documentary.


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It tells you much about the documentary Merchants of Doubt that charismatic magician Jamy Ian Swiss provides the film's first narrative voice. Swiss is understandably dismayed by the film's primary subjects — under-qualified "experts" who appear on TV news programs to cloud or distort results of scientific research and sew doubt about the dangers of cigarette smoke, environmental chemicals and the film's true focal point, climate change. After all, these pundits-for-hire transform the tricks Swiss uses to entertain audiences into weapons of mass deception, typically at the behest of large corporations who stand to profit from the ruse.

  The presence of Swiss and his remarkable sleight-of–hand also are intended to make Merchants of Doubt fun and entertaining, which is a tall order for a film as serious as this. Director Robert Kenner also presents clips from The Twilight Zone and slick computer-generated images designed to make the photocopying of corporate documents appear captivating and mysterious. Ironically, this type of material was inspired by the fake-pundit playbook described in the film, which says to keep your arguments "short, simple and funny." But it undermines a film that has an abundance of earth-shattering stories to tell.

  Based on the book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt gets a lot of mileage from its detailed examination of the tobacco industry and its largely successful 50-year campaign to avoid government regulation. That's where the techniques used to cast doubt on science-based issues were first developed, from the endless demands for additional proof of harm to the reframing of every call for intervention as an attack on personal freedom. Vintage clips of tobacco industry representatives touting the health benefits of cigarettes never get old, but they also serve as an origin story for everything that follows in the film.

  Chicago Tribune reporters Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe share a remarkable tale of their two-year investigation of fire-retardant chemicals. After a series of deadly house fires caused by cigarettes in the 1970s, the tobacco industry mounted a campaign to blame the tragedies on flammable furniture. The industry even infiltrated the National Association of State Fire Marshals with one of their operatives, leading to a California law requiring the use of these highly toxic chemicals in the manufacture of household furniture. A purported grassroots organization called Citizens for Fire Safety that supported the law actually had three members: the leading corporate manufacturers of the chemicals. Callahan and Roe's uncovering of these stories helped bring about repeal of the California law, and they reveal much about the modern art of disinformation.

  Unlike many films with a clear sociopolitical agenda, Merchants of Doubt allows the opposing side ample room to explain its actions and worldview. We are treated to the singular spectacle of Marc Morano, a former door-to-door salesman-turned-crackerjack oil-company shill. Morano counters irrefutable research on climate change with personal attacks on scientists. He sits for the camera and explains the he has "a lot of fun" with his smear campaigns, which often lead to death threats for researchers and their families after Morano posts their personal emails on his site. Scientists who deal in fine distinctions and must keep an open mind as research evolves are no match for combatants like Morano. That's what makes even a flawed film like Merchants of Doubt indispensable. — KEN KORMAN


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