Review: 'Merchants of Doubt' is a fun, stealth climate change doc
A new documentary looks at a major issue from the angle of those who deliberately mislead the public to rally on the side of those who would harm them.
‘Merchants of Doubt’
Director: Robert Kenner
3 (out of 5) Globes
“Merchants of Doubt,” a documentary about how the public is regularly duped into campaigning against its own survival, pulls a stealth con of its own: it’s secretly about climate change. It doesn’t get into the issue’s specifics; in a way it doesn’t have to. It knows the science on the subject is tight, that there isn’t any significant debate on its veracity among those who actually study the subject and know what they’re talking about. And it also knows that the few dissenters — almost all of questionable background, including many with ties to companies for whom reform would not be good business — tend to be louder and better at getting attention than the mousy types who gravitate towards science. Bullies will always stomp over complex issues, and as it stands we’ve almost certainly doomed humanity to a miserable, if not outright apocalyptic, future.
But again, “Merchants of Doubt” both is and isn’t about climate change. It’s about the hustle itself, perpetrated by those who scam the public, and in many cases — and sometimes unconsciously — themselves. Climate change is presented as the latest in a long line of long cons — which is to say grifts that went on far, far longer than they should have. Adapting the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, documentarian Robert Kenner — who uncovered similar lying in “Food Inc.” — digs up older dupes. Remember when people thought cigarettes didn’t cause cancer? Or the scare over toxins in “fire-retardant furniture”? Both took ages to be reversed, in part because lobbyists knew how to rally the very people they were harming to their side.
Kenner treats this not with stern hysteria but with gallows humor. Self-deception is a mainstay of the human condition, his film understands, and we’re doomed to repeat the same miseries, only in different, sometimes more extreme forms. Even the people doing the swindling don’t always seem to think they’re swindling. Former renowned scientists-turned-deniers, like physicist-turned-climate change denier Fred Singer, exhibit that foible in which one takes a position contrary to what everyone else is saying, even if that position (cigarette toxicity, climate change) is flat-out wrong. It understands the rush of being the one lone smart guy in the room, preaching what one perceives is the hidden truth. (Then there’s professional climate change denier Marc Morano, a charismatic scumbag who’s essentially Aaron Eckhart in “Thank You For Smoking” come to monstrous, weirdly likable life.) Kenner can go to far into fun mode; the Spice Girls probably didn’t need to make a cameo. But it understands the appeal of making strong points in attractive, engaging ways. It’s taking lessons from the bad guys, but for the right side.