One watches the earnestly comic documentary Merchants of Doubt with some confusion. That’s not because the story, about the professional deceivers who make a living pretending terribly dangerous things (smoking, climate change) aren’t so bad, is hard to follow. What’s difficult to parse is the PG-13 rating. This is, after all, a film in which well-intentioned smart people talk to the camera. By comparison, in the also PG-13 The Dark Knight, a man explodes in a jail cell after a bomb is sewed into his abdomen. It would be nice to think that Merchants of Doubt gets a PG-13 because the lies you hear are so obscene, and not because one of the interviewees used some salty language.
This is an ugly film, though it has an upbeat spirit. Director Robert Kenner starts off with magician Jamy Ian Swiss giving a deft performance in close-up magic. “My expertise is in deception,” Swiss says with no small amount of pride. Kenner features Swiss so prominently, and laces the film with visual nods to card tricks, because as Swiss states about magicians, “We are honest liars.” The professional charlatans Kenner profiles later would be hard put to make such a claim. The tragedy of the film is that depressingly few people get the difference.
Although current media misinformation is mostly centered on climate change deniers carrying water for industrial interests fighting off expensive regulation, Kenner builds up to that. He starts off with longtime anti-smoking advocate Stanton Glantz and others, who were amazed by the tobacco industry’s eagerness to engage in bald-faced lying about tobacco’s deadly effects (which, it was later discovered, their own internal research had shown) right up until their defenses collapsed under multiple class action lawsuits.
Merchants of Doubt is most effective when illustrating how Big Tobacco’s stalling tactics were picked up by the mini-industry devoted to claiming that climate change doesn’t exist. Or if it does exist, man isn’t causing it. Or it does exist, and it’s not a problem because everybody likes warmer temperatures anyway. The ever-shifting rationales for why governments shouldn’t regulate the emissions causing climate change are central to the dissemblers’ strategy. Manufacturing doubt when there truly is none and creating controversies where they don’t exist is the bread and butter of a small but intensely dedicated army of paid pseudo-experts and ideological fanatics. They have proven that by shouting loud and long enough they can convince a gullible media there is a second side to an argument already decided. As one of the interviewees notes,“This is a debate but it’s not a scientific debate.”
Unlike many films of this ilk, Kenner convinced members of the mostly fossil fuel industry-funded opposition to make their case. For the most part they fall into predictable categories, like the well-funded lobbyist (Tim Phillips of the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity) and the would-be expert (denialist mainstay Frederick Singer, who has a hard time keeping his lies straight here). None do a particularly good job preaching to the non-converted. If the film has a failing, it’s in not digging into the phenomenon of why so many are eager to swallow their lies.
It’s one thing to bring on professional disinformation types like the smells-of-sulphur Marc Morano, who revels in all the vitriol he spins like some playground nihilist. But the film never makes that crucial linkage between what Morano, Phillips, and Singer do with the oohs and aahs elicited by Swiss’s card tricks. Kenner’s sardonic style works hard to make that connection, using every snarky trick from the Michael Moore playbook, and even using “That Old Black Magic” on the soundtrack like Alex Gibney did with his more successfully tragicomic film about some other dangerous liars: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Being lied to by a magician is simply more fun than being hoodwinked by an industry shill insisting that it’s okay if your SUV only gets five miles to the gallon. Sadly, by the time many people are able to look back at the climate change deniers’ claims here and laugh in disbelief, it will be too late to do anything about it.