'Merchants of Doubt': Telluride Review

Participant Media
Climate change skeptics come under fire in this effective piece of agitprop

The Oscar-nominated director of 'Food, Inc.' goes after climate change deniers in this popular festival doc

Documentaries about the dangers of climate change are nothing new, but Merchants of Doubt, which had its world premiere in Telluride, adds a pointed perspective to the debate. Robert Kenner, the director of Food, Inc., sets out to examine how the overwhelming scientific evidence on the subject has been marginalized in many quarters. He looks back at the long, depressing history of corporate spinmeisters bamboozling and endangering the public. The film seems likely to stir conversation when Sony Classics releases it later this year.

Kenner has managed to make the movie entertaining as well as enlightening. He begins in an unconventional way, with a visit to the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. One of the magicians points out the entertainment value in deception and trickery, but adds that at least cardsharps and hypnotists are “honest liars.” That cannot be said for the corporate executives and paid lackeys who set out to deceive the public in order to advance their dubious agenda.

After this wry opening, the film looks back at the tobacco industry’s successful efforts to camouflage or minimize the dangers of smoking for decades. So the climate change deniers are following in a less-than-hallowed tradition and reworking a playbook developed by Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Kenner reminds viewers that NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress about the dangers of climate change as far back as 1988. A quarter-century later, the battle is still being fought.

Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, who co-authored a book that helped to inspire Kenner, conducted a survey to see if scientists are actually as divided on the subject of climate change as some conservative commentators (mainly those on Fox News) like to suggest. Oreskes found that close to 100 percent of scientists believe in global warming caused by human activity. To his credit, Kenner does include interviews with a couple of scientists who take the opposite point of view, but they are elderly physicists whose areas of expertise are completely unrelated to climatology. Nevertheless, this tiny minority has been remarkably effective in confusing the public and lessening the sense of imminent danger.

A couple of the most revealing interviews are with people who were initially among the deniers but who changed their minds after studying the evidence: magazine editor Michael Shermer and former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis. Yet one scene at a Las Vegas convention shows that no matter how much scientific evidence is presented, some rabid skeptics refuse to be convinced.

The film is at times slightly misshapen. One section about the tobacco industry’s campaign to divert attention from cigarettes by emphasizing the dangers of flammable furniture seems like an overly lengthy aside. And Kenner doesn’t provide enough information about the oil and coal companies that are leading the charge against new federal environmental regulations.

To be honest, there isn’t a tremendous amount of new information in this generally well-crafted documentary. But it makes a potent, urgent case against the merchants of doubt who play games with the planet’s future.

Production: Participant Media, Omidyar Network
Director: Robert Kenner
Screenwriters: Robert Kenner, Kim Roberts

Producers: Robert Kenner, Melissa Robledo
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Pierre Omidyar, Diane Weyermann
Directors of photography: Don Lenzer, Barry Berona, Jay Redmond
Editor: Kim Roberts
Music: Mark Adler

No rating, 96 minutes

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