Merchants of Doubt
by Jordan Canahai
Merchants of Doubt
The new documentary Merchants of Doubt, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, takes dead aim on the professional liars behind Washington think tanks—the slick suits appearing on TV or before congressional and senate hearings to stoke confusion over matters science has long settled in the name of protecting the corporate interests of their big business backers, exposing a long series of their lies on major issues and implicating the system that sustains them. It’s the latest from director Robert Kenner (most well known for 2008’s similar big business bashing Food Inc.) and backed by the socially progressive production company Participant Media. It’s the kind of well meaning and productive documentary, propelled by slick graphics and narrated by attractively photographed talking heads, that liberal filmmakers like Michael Moore have made so popular in recent times. That it comes off a little redundant has something to do with both its content and Kenner’s execution.
The film’s cinematic framing device is provided by professional magicians, a fitting metaphor as they employ the same tricks for sleight-of-hand and adjusting reality that the lobbyists for big business do, but the point is delivered early on with the same lack of subtlety of everything else to follow. Kenner first details the lies of Big Tobacco, going as far back as the 1950s when it was well proven cigarettes caused cancer and other health problems. The efforts of tobacco lobbyists to stem the PR damage such findings led to had many wide-reaching social and political consequences, but the film goes on to detail how the same lies and tactics would be absorbed by other industries in the name of protecting profits. The bulk of Merchants of Doubt focuses on the current debate of climate change, in which the goals of the shills in bed with big business (oil companies chief among them) is to peddle enough conspicuous nonsense on a large enough platform to turn the debate into one about political ideology rather than the facts at hand. Once the discussion becomes about how environmentalists, for example, are simply motivated by their socialist leanings rather than concern over the scientific data, big business has won the argument regardless of the truth.
It’s certainly a valid subject worth exploring in film, and one that should make thoughtful viewers of any political stripe angry, but given how well-trod this territory has been in recent years by other forms of media—the book it’s based on included—Kenner’s revelations aren’t really that revelatory. The disingenuous armies of hypocrites who represent big business have been clogging up the 24 hour cable news cycle for years, and have been continually exposed by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and others just as frequently. One can’t help but feel Merchants of Doubt exists merely to preach to the converted.
Watch the trailer for Merchants of Doubt
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