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Merchants of Doubt
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by Jay Seaver

"How do you hard-sell the idea that the hard sell is a bad thing?"
4 stars

The most impressive thing about "Merchants of Doubt" may be the apparent lack of resignation on the part of its makers. It is, after all, a documentary that is well-researched, clear in its message, and attractively presented, but which ultimately seems to conclude that being all of those things may not matter. Director Robert Kenner must have known this going in, but makes the effort anyway, trying to dismantle the apparatus built to repel the point he would probably rather be making.

It's a solidly-built and well-honed defense mechanism, a system of living, anticipating challenges, and outright lying/fraud that not only served the tobacco industry well, but which in doing so created the template (and trained the personnel) for a number of other battles against causes where the merits often seem quite clear. The film starts by looking at how the tobacco industry and its offshoot, flame-retardant materials, worked to manipulate public opinion, a proving ground for today's bitter fight to minimize the acceptance of climate change.

Kenner and his colleagues do not spend a whole lot of time establishing the worthiness of fighting against tobacco or climate change, although the mountains of evidence are referenced in order to establish a certain sort of scale. Instead, the techniques used for sowing doubt are laid out, with examples given and some effort made to explain why these techniques work. Interestingly, this is perhaps best communicated by James Shermer (publisher of the magazine Skeptic) and former Republican Congressperson Bob Inglis, both clearly more politically conservative than many of the others interviewed, who can bring a less accusatory tone when talking about the frustrations of the "us vs. them" mentality that drives much of today's American politics.

Then again, there's also no doubt that some of the villains are among the most compelling of subjects, if only for the unabashed way that they present themselves and the contrary. On the one hand, there's Frederick Singer and Fred Seitz, two celebrated physicists who give climate change denial a veneer of scientific legitimacy despite their disciplines not being directly applicable to the field; they are at least understandable as Cold War veterans even if there is something a little horrifying about the extreme caveat emptor attitude Seitz takes. On the other, there's Marc Morano, best known for expanding into personal attacks on scientists, whose candor and energy make him strangely magnetic even if he does seem utterly amoral.

He's apparently good at packaging the message has been paid for, and you can say the same for Kenner. At times, it almost seems like he's made the movie too slick - one looks at the animated transitions, occasionally elaborate visual representations, and segments where illusionist Jamy Ian Swiss explains how slight of hand and misdirection work, and wonders if he is doing the same thing as the people his film is about in hiding suspect data in an appealing wrapper, or trying to fight fire with fire to a certain extent. It almost demands some sort of self-examination, even for a viewer who is inclined to sympathize.

That's the paradox at the heart of both the film and the book that inspired it - that people can often be diverted from a contrary message that requires some explanation is a contrary message that requires some explanation. Kenner does the best he can to make it palatable anyway, and maybe "Merchants of Doubt" will wind up helping people weigh arguments and consider sources more carefully. It certainly can't hurt, especially since it's clear that those who gain from confusion won't stop their efforts.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=27682&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/01/15 15:12:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2014 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.

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USA
  06-Mar-2015
  DVD: 07-Jul-2015

UK
  N/A

Australia
  06-Mar-2015
  DVD: 30-Jun-2015


Directed by
  Robert Kenner

Written by
  N/A

Cast
  (documentary)



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