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Over his decades in the television and film documentary business, filmmaker Robert Kenner has established himself as a Michael Lewis-like figure, pointing his lens at subjects with which most of us feel we are already familiar, but then showing us that we’re not by asking them questions we wouldn’t have thought to ask ourselves.
Kenner did this most prominently in his 2009 Oscar-nominated doc Food, Inc., which looks at the shocking shortcuts that multinational corporations take with our food and the impact this has on our health. And he has done it again in his latest doc, Merchants of Doubt, which Sony Classics is currently taking on the fall fest circuit: it premiered at Telluride, played at Toronto (where I caught up with it on Wednesday) and will next be seen in New York.
Merchants of Doubt is a film about the people who essentially sell their souls to corporations that pay them to deceive the public: “experts,” “pundits,” “talking heads” and the like. It suggests that the “doubt industry” traces back to the 1950s, when cigarette companies, realizing full well that their products were harmful, decided to try to cast doubt about — as opposed to outright denying — whether this was, in fact, the case.
The doc then systemically lays out, through a blend of archival footage, archival documents and interviews, how this tremendously effective approach — which procured the cigarette companies decades of continued sales and cost millions more Americans their lives — was copied by other companies selling products that are detrimental to Americans’ well-being, including flame retardants and asbestos.
Most disturbingly, the doc shows how these tactics have found their way into the political arena, in which elected officials, as financially beholden as ever to corporations, now defend themselves using these same tactics.
The most prominent example of this is the climate change “debate,” which, on the basis of science and fact, really shouldn’t be a debate at all, and wouldn’t be but for the massive threat that it poses to corporations that produce carbon by burning coal or oil. Those corporations, with their backs increasingly against the wall, are now just trying to buy time by casting doubt — or, rather, hiring others to cast doubt — on the legitimacy, origins, seriousness or reversibility of climate change.
This time, though, these merchants of doubt might not “just” cost a lot of people their lives, but could, potentially, keep people from making changes that could still save the planet as we know it. The overwhelming scientific consensus — as opposed to the hogwash put forward by unqualified or bought-and-paid-for “experts,” including one who jokes in the film that he’s not a scientist, but he plays one on TV — is that there is not much time remaining before climate change becomes irreversible. Which makes it all the more important for the public to investigate, as this doc does, the motivations of the sources from which we get our news and information.
Merchants of Doubt would have been even more powerful and shocking in a world before websites like FactCheck.org, the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the nightly exposes of The Rachel Maddow Show. But it still has a noble and important mission, and executes it well — so I think that it, like Food, Inc., may well click with members of the Academy’s doc branch.