EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a capsule review. The full review will be released once the film hits theatres.
Merchants of Doubt, the latest doc from Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner, is a sometimes fascinating but mostly shallow and repetitive glimpse at how a few powerful corporations and think tanks have manipulated the public through cunning PR. It is inspired by a 2010 non-fiction book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, which argues that a few people with special interests are altering public opinion around climate change, thus delaying how we solve this issue. That is an important topic for discussion; however, Merchants of Doubt is an incomplete doc.
Kenner compares the public ignorance surrounding the perils of climate change to the warnings over tobacco in the mid-20th century. The heads of tobacco companies knew that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, but hid these facts from the press and the public. In a similar way, the heads of companies that can be hurt by an environmentally conscious movement will try to move attention away from scientific data. Instead, these corporations send out “merchants of doubt” to convince people that the climate change is exaggerated or that there is “no consensus” within the scientific community.
At moments throughout Merchants of Doubt, Kenner sits down with some of these titular manipulators, but he never asks the tough questions. When the director should be leading the interview to uncover the root of deception of people like Marc Morano, he is swindled by the charm of charismatic talking heads. As he tries to side his audience against the skeptics, Kenner ends up using the same tactics that they do.
Instead of probing his interview subjects for insight into the climate debate, he is content to regurgitate the same facts again and again, hoping his audience will be convinced enough to not want to hear the other side. Besides preaching to the choir, Merchants of Doubt barely looks at how the media frames the discussion. The poor representation of these matters in the media is a central component into why there is such doubt and skepticism among the public.
Don’t get me wrong, the film has some important and revealing information, but Merchants of Doubt’s lack of independent opinion – some of the people interviewed, including renowned climate scientist James Hansen, have a political stake in the climate change debate – and poor probing of its skeptic subjects makes this doc rather inconsequential. For a doc that wants to look behind the curtain and open up the climate change argument, it is only satisfied to hear the same sound bites. Ultimately, by representing one side so simplistically, Kenner becomes a merchant of doubt, too.