The truth revealed in ‘Merchants of Doubt’

Merchants
Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

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Filmmaker Robert Kenner, known for the documentary “Food, Inc.,” unveils another ugly truth on the big screen with “Merchants of Doubt.” His latest film brilliantly and creatively exposes the playbook used by masters of deception, who often pose as so-called “experts” and are hired by large firms hoping to avoid government regulation.

According to the film, these experts — who are often lobbyists — have a set of skills that are frighteningly applied to companies invested in tobacco, food, oil and harmful chemicals. These agents are not only merchants selling their skills to big companies, but merchants of doubt — salesmen seeding doubt in the minds of consumers and lawmakers alike.

Kenner resourcefully overcomes one of his biggest challenges: visualizing the story and making it entertaining when most of the characters are just working at a desk. Using magicians as an analogy to show how these masters of deception are similar and different, makes the documentary easy to understand and leaves a lot of room for creative filmmaking.

“Merchants of Doubt” keeps the audience captivated through this fitting analogy, aesthetically pleasing visuals, impressive edits and breathtaking cinematography. In doing so, the content of the film is not lost and the significance is retained.

Jamy Ian Swiss, an impressive magician and storyteller, is brought onboard to help differentiate between how magicians deceive audiences who want to be fooled and the world of corporate public relations that intentionally deceives the public for selfish reasons. Swiss’s extensive familiarity with the overlapping of science, magic and deception makes him a great unifying character. His knowledge of these three areas brings the novelty of learning a magician’s trick to learning the tricks of corporate publicists.

Unlike “Thank You For Smoking,” which is a comedy-drama film focusing on the tactics used by a tobacco lobbyist, “Merchants of Doubt” takes an approach that looks at the bigger picture: why the public so easily takes the word of a self-proclaimed “expert” over the words of actual scientists with evidence to back them up.

Kenner highlights that one of the biggest enablers of this problem is the media. In failing to extensively check the veracity of these experts and lobbyists, the media has allowed false information to slip through, giving them attention and time they do not deserve. When journalists start accepting the false statuses as experts and scientists they are, in essence, giving verisimilitude to deceivers. Not only does this give credibility to the merchants, but it simultaneously gives them a platform to fool the public and let their lies spread.

“Merchants of Doubt” is able to portray how ridiculous most denial statements and tactics are. With a few absurd arguments interspersed throughout the film, audiences have some unorchestrated humor to look forward to. Kenner is able to capture some of the claims, such as a Phillip Morris executive’s claim, “anything can be considered harmful. Apple sauce is harmful if you get too much of it.”

The film is not, however, just aesthetics and humor. What is truly impressive is the extent many lobbyists and experts go to, in order to degrade scientists with personal attacks — shifting the focus from facts to fiction and from science to slander. Marc Morano is one of the terrifyingly, impressive and yet sadistic experts with this skill set. His statements add shock and give viewers a hard-hitting wakeup call; the companies who hire publicists such as Morano do not care about how much he enjoys harassing people, nor do they care about the lengths he will go to.

The documentary is crafted with the power to capture attention like a film. While Hollywood blockbusters use CGI for animated dragons and armies, “Merchants of Doubt” uses graphics to smoothly and aesthetically transition between scenes — using a riffle shuffle to transition to the Congress members zealously denying climate change. Instead of scripted acting and action sequences, the shock comes from the atrocities of characters such as Morano and two scientists with deeply anti-communist rooted beliefs. Carefully selecting interviews and hearings, and combining evidence gives content that keeps audiences at the edge of their seats waiting to learn more.

Contact Gautami Sharma at [email protected].