Director Robert Kenner is no stranger to culturally provocative documentaries, past films include the Oscar-nominated fast food take-down Food, Inc.- and this time he’s turning the lens toward big business and their not-so-publicly-known corporate agendas. In Merchants of Doubt, Kenner looks under the veil and into the world of advertising and the spin doctors who manipulate the public perception of various companies. Cigarettes, climate change, and flame retardants are just some of the topics covered in this highly informative and unnerving documentary. Don Draper, avert your eyes.
To drive the point home, Kenner incorporates a magician (who performs in front of a studio audience at The Magic Castle in Los Angeles) into the film- using the analogy of his tricks to better explain the “sneaky” work done by hired hands. The use of the magician, who is actually quite impressive, makes it both easy to understand and fun to follow along.
They say a magician never reveals his tricks, but Kenner does just that once again in Merchants of Doubt…
We quickly discover that this subject is no laughing matter. For years, corporations have hired public relations firms to create and shape trustworthy and honest (honest-enough) company personas for the public interest. How else would they attract customers? The problem is, what was going on behind closed doors was terrifying; by concealing the whole truth about a certain product, it would become misrepresented, usually not in the consumers favor. This is what is described as “honest lying,” only revealing facts that paint the company in a positive light. Case in point, archival footage from courtrooms show major cigarette company executives swearing, under oath, that they don’t have enough research to conclude that smoking is dangerous, all the while back at the office, hundreds of reports show that smoking kills. If cigarette companies had it their way, there would never be enough research to confirm or deny that fact.
The smoking issue, while important and harrowing, only introduces the film’s seemingly larger issue- climate change. This is where Kenner focuses most of his attention, and is where the film gains its strength. Republican Congressman (or as the film shows, soon enough Ex-Congressman) Bob Inglis confidently, and openly, talks about his initial thoughts regarding global warming. The thought that human activity would be even at least partly responsible for planet-warming seemed ridiculous; that is, until he did some independent research and came to the conclusion that humans are very much responsible for this current global warming crisis. Very publicly, Inglis retracts his initial thoughts and becomes an advocate for climate control. His life-altering epiphany is an exception, however, it serves as proof that given unbiased information, tools, and willingness to learn, people are equipped to make educated decisions independently without corporations telling us what they think we want to hear.
They say a magician never reveals his tricks, but Kenner does just that once again in Merchants of Doubt, while also including some of the top scientists and skeptics from the various fields who, although camera-shy (they are renowned scientists and thinkers, after all) are still eager to expose the truth behind various companies claims and their influence on public safety. Once seen, never forgotten, this film does a good job of planting that activism seed in the minds of the audience which, to me, makes it a film worth watching.