Part of the problem with “Merchants of Doubt” is also part of its own argument: You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into, and a dispiriting number of people are less interested in facts than they are in confirming their own biases.
This leaves Robert Kenner’s documentary about the power of lobbyists and astroturf organizations to influence public opinion on everything from smoking to climate change in an awkward position, as most of its self-selecting audience is likely to already agree with the film’s premise, arguments, and conclusions before even seeing it.
For the record, Kenner is on the level in terms of said conclusions and the evidence supporting them — sometimes maddeningly so, as the problems he points to are genuine and pressing. But the fact “Merchants of Doubt” is the kind of slickly-produced affair that wins Oscars and flatters liberal sensibilities seems relevant, given how much importance its interviewees ascribe to the importance of presenting one’s case in an accessible way.
Kenner uses an extended sleight-of-hand metaphor to explain how the tobacco industry and climate-change deniers (among many others) use misdirection in the form of manufactured doubt and disinformation to combat the science that definitively proves them wrong, even bringing in an actual magician to underscore the parallels. Yet the film’s clever musical cues and archival footage (there are several cutaways to “The Twilight Zone,” for instance) feel like their own sleight of hand meant to gussy up the truth.
This may seem like a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario condemning the film to be either ineffective in its straightforwardness or contradictory in its dressed-up presentation of what many will consider unsurprising revelations. It’s a tension that Kenner might have resolved by grappling with or at least acknowledging it, but as is it feels like an unaddressed elephant in the room.
These problems are exacerbated by a complacent media that continues to frame climate change as a legitimate scientific debate when it’s closer to a united front of climatologists screaming into the void as bought-and-paid-for talking heads bloviate on CNN. If scientists were better at public relations and soundbite-ready quips, Kenner might not have needed to make this film in the first place. There’s a reason Bill Nye isn’t known as the Public Relations Guy.
What makes this all so strange is the fact that, by the film’s own implicit admission, those who most need to see “Merchants of Doubt” are also the least likely to be swayed by its argument. Kenner shows footage of a convention in which self-described skeptics literally yell at panelists when confronted with incontrovertible proof of climate change for the simple fact that it doesn’t conform to their pre-existing worldview. This tribal mentality, as one of Kenner’s subjects describes it, seems an almost insurmountable problem: the idea of having to change one’s way of life is so frightening that many reject it outright. The truth about nicotine and cigarettes in general eventually came out, but it took decades to make it official. Few in “Merchants of Doubt” think we can afford to wait that long on climate change, leaving us all in an uncertain spot.
“Merchants of Doubt” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and next screens in Toronto. Sony Pictures Classics will release it later this year.