Movie News & Reviews

Movie review: ‘Merchants of Doubt’ the ultimate cautionary tale

A still from the film, “Merchants of Doubt.”
A still from the film, “Merchants of Doubt.” Sony Pictures Classics

It’s no secret that corporations lie about all sorts of things, but why they lie – and how they do it – is the subject of “Merchants of Doubt.”

A chilling documentary showing how the cigarette, asbestos, fossil fuel and other industries manipulate scientific evidence, create dummy public interest groups and foster a class of media savvy “experts” who try to cast doubt on legitimate research, the film is a harsh and unsparing indictment of laissez-faire capitalism.

Taking a historical approach, director Robert Kenner’s movie shows how Big Tobacco set the template for other industries to follow. Realizing over 50 years ago that smoking was a serious health concern, and not willing to jeopardize its profit margins, the industry began paying scientists, or people purporting to be scientists, to manipulate findings about cancer, the dangers of second-hand smoke, etc., and hired slick public relations firms to carry their message to the public and the halls of Congress.

Following this tactic through other businesses and down to the present day, “Merchants of Doubt” jumps feet first into the climate change “debate,” focusing attention on people like Marc Morano, a smarmy but nonetheless entertainingly glib climate change denier who runs the anti-climate change website climatedepot.com. Morano, who is shown debating pedantic scientists on TV (and that’s part of the problem, scientists just aren’t well-trained media types), gleefully admits that he tries to promote a political stalemate on the issue, and that “gridlock is the greatest friend a global warming skeptic has.”

Morano is contrasted with Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman and climate change skeptic who has done a 180 and now runs the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which promotes market-based solutions to climate issues. Still politically conservative, Inglis admits that a lot of the negativity towards the issue is because his peers “see action on climate change as an attack on a way of life.”

Kenner’s film is sometimes a little too cute for its own good, especially in its use of a professional magician describing how his use of fakery and illusion is the same as corporate deceit. But Kenner does make sure to point out that ultimately, attempts to legitimize smoking and the use of products like asbestos failed. Yet because of the enormous amounts of corporate money poured into these disingenuous campaigns, it took decades before the truth came out (Only in 2012 were tobacco companies forced by a federal judge to admit they had lied about the dangers of cigarettes).

Which makes “Merchants of Doubt” the ultimate cautionary tale: If it looks and feels like it’s bad for you, and the industry involved says “don’t worry,” go with your gut. You’ll be happy you did.

Merchants of Doubt

B+ Cast: Naomi Oreskes, Bob Inglis, Michael Shermer, Marc Morano

Director: Robert Kenner

Length: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Rating: PG-13 (some strong language)

Theaters

Raleigh: Grande. Durham: Carolina.

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