Combustible Celluloid
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Written by: Robert Kenner, Kim Roberts
Directed by: Robert Kenner
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 96
Date: 03/06/2015

Merchants of Doubt (2015)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Spin and Bear It

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Directed by Robert Kenner, of the excellent documentary Food, Inc. (2009), Merchants of Doubt feels a little scattershot, as if it were unsure exactly whether to stay on the topic of misdirection or to dive directly into the immediate and pressing issue of climate change. When it is on topic, it's quite educational, illustrating just how people are hired for the purpose of misrepresenting data (or presenting false data) and how they cast doubt.

Based on a book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the documentary Merchants of Doubt begins by looking at big tobacco companies, who, unable to flat-out lie about the dangers of their products, learned the techniques of casting doubt. An entire industry, flame retardant for furniture, sprung up based on their misinformation. Now these same tactics are being used to combat climate scientists who assert that greenhouse gasses are destroying the planet. Big businesses and right-wing conservatives risk big profit losses and other changes if they agree, so they use similar tactics to deflect attention away from the issue. Magician Jamy Ian Swiss also turns up, explaining how the psychological techniques of magic tricks are similar to this.

Amazingly, Kenner scored some fascinating interviews with these "fakers," who usually would not agree to appear in a movie like this. Meanwhile, scientists are less charismatic, but more straightforward in their interviews. (Many are shocked and saddened by this whole phenomenon.) And, as the topic moves over to climate change, the movie becomes more emotional and less analytical. But on the whole, it has a great deal of important information presented in a lively way, and it has the power to get you riled up.

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