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Merchants of Doubt - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Merchants of Doubt
Directing: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

It could be said that Merchants of Doubt pulls off a miracle. How could that be? Well, the most impressive person in this film to be watched almost exclusively by liberals is the ultra-conservative former Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina. This is a guy most liberals would disagree with on virtually every issue, with one stunning exception: global warming.

Unlike most people who cling to their believes regardless of what facts are presented to them, Inglish found himself on an environmental committee, visited Antarctica two times, and found that the data presented to him reversed his position on climate change. His reward for this? To get massively trounced in the subsequent election.

Because there is a big difference between this man and the majority of his electorate -- and far too much of the country on the whole: integrity when processing information. The population on the whole is far too easily manipulated, and that is the essence of what Merchants of Doubt is about.

It all comes back to the tobacco industry, to which director and co-writer Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) returns multiple times. It took fifty years to turn the tide of public opinion on the lethal effects of nicotine, because of the hired hands the industry put on television deliberately to mislead and manipulate the public -- and, most notably, the government. In the end, the industry lost to a huge extent, but those hired hands learned a hell of a lot about what tactics work best. And they were re-hired to do the same work in other industries, from manufacturers of flame retardants (which were required use on furniture for years despite their plainly dangerous properties), to -- you guessed it -- polluters.

Merchants of Doubt presents this information in ways both playfully entertaining and sobering. It perhaps could have used more time spent on the extent to which the media itself is complicit, although that is not ignored entirely. The film rightly highlights the mystifying tactic of presenting arguments between actual scientists and so-called "experts" with no actual credentials as credible debate.

Scientists have no media savvy, and climate change deniers do. That's the bottom line. And so the world burns. Hyperbole? Maybe.

Kenner is unusually objective in his approach and presentation. He speaks both to people who genuinely seem to believe the things they spout in direct opposition to scientific data, and to some of those hired to spin for them on television. One guy is particularly frank about the "work" he does, almost gleeful, to an unsettling degree. He openly states that science is beside the point, and simply explains how he does what he does.

It makes one wonder whose mind this movie might change. It's tempting to think that if any movie could, it's this one -- it features people freely admitting the nature of their deceptions. But what it also makes depressingly clear is how difficult it is to change someone's mind when they have already come to a rigid stance. It brings to mind even similar issues on the left, such as anti-vaxxers and GMO alarmists. These are also issues in which arguments are widely made based on long-discredited reports and studies that nevertheless keep getting cited.

There's a particular difference between Merchants of Doubt and, say, the excellent 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Nearly a decade ago, Al Gore was careful to end his talk with a message of hope: this is how we can turn the tide around. There's not so much of that here. Although a lot of Merchants of Doubt is presented in a fun way, it simply lays out how skilled shills have been hired in the meantime to keep the public skeptical of what is plainly scientific fact. There is no sense of any potential for turnaround in this tide.

Should the movie itself be blamed for that? In its defense, it does end with a suggestion to go to www.takepart.com/doubt, with links to different ways of getting involved, including signing a petition to end climate change denial in the media. That said, one doesn't get the sense that it'll make much difference based on what the movie tells us. It does have a sense of urgency: on this issue, we literally don't have the fifty years to wait for the same kind of turnaround that eventually occurred with the tobacco industry.

Like most documentaries of its ilk, Merchants of Doubt is essentially preaching to the choir. I would still insist it should be seen. It's depressing but it is informative, and even though it may feel like a drop of water pushing against a tidal wave of misinformation, there's still power in numbers -- even in tiny increments. The question we're left with is when it might be too late. How many other Bob Inglises might be out there? We need to find those guys.

The power of manipulated ignorance is on full display in MERCHANTS OF DOUBT.

Overall: B+
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