Director Robert Kenner calls his latest documentary a "comedy about the potential end of the world". When Kenner speaks, people listen. His film "Food, Inc." won two Emmys and earned an Academy Award nomination. He next set his sights on a doc that would expose the spin doctors and so-called "expert" pundits who sow seeds of doubt about climate change and other critical issues, in exchange for large monetary rewards. The finished product, "Merchants of Doubt", is mandatory viewing.
The problem is that the people who really need to see Kenner's movie will not. This is the portion of the American public that believes what it wants to believe, their blindness to scientific fact justified by the smooth operators and slick speakers seen on Fox News, on shows hosted by the likes of Glenn Beck --- he founded "TheBlaze" in 2010, which airs on over 100 cable TV channels --- or in listening to radio's chief hatemonger, Rush Limbaugh.
Whether it's political candidates changing their viewpoints to get elected, or the uber-wealthy Koch brothers financing the deceptive messages of lobbyists, "Merchants of Doubt" is an infuriating look at the inability of many in this country to see the light. Despite one study that showed over 900 scientists unanimously in agreement on global warming --- with not a single dissenting opinion --- conservatives, Tea Partiers and others still insist that climate change is a hoax. In one dramatic sequence, we learn that the melting icebergs, even with a seemingly miniscule impact on ocean depths, could cause disastrous results to coastal cities from Boston to San Francisco.
But paid pundits like Marc Morano, who founded CinemaDepot.com, a site for climate change skeptics, and who was named "Climate Change Misinformer of the Year" (2012) by one organization, continue to espouse their false and non-science-based vitriol on the public airwaves. Yet far too many people eat it up as gospel truth.
Kenner's film, based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, also exposes myths perpetrated on behalf of manufacturing industries, including tobacco, and makers of flame retardant furniture. Fred Singer, once a highly-regarded physicist, changed his tune when he was added to the payroll of R. J. Reynolds, becoming a "vehement" denier of tobacco's impact on health.
One particularly odious individual, a burn surgeon, mind you, testified that a baby once suffered severe burns because its crib was not equipped with flame retardant material --- this in the face of contrary testimony from firefighters and others that flame retardant materials not only do NOT work, they contain toxic chemicals. The surgeon made his baby claim on more than one occasion, but a little investigative research revealed no such burned baby in any hospital archives. The cause of the fire that burned this fictional baby? The mother placed a lit candle inside the crib --- what??? And this guy was paid $240,000 for his story.
The unmitigated arrogance of tobacco industry executives, like a VP from Philip Morris who at first denied that smoking cigarettes was harmful, and years later recanted only to come up with some other flimsy explanation, is the type of revolting hypocrisy that Jon Stewart regularly presents on "The Daily Show" --- sadly ending his 17-year-run later this year. But I digress ---
One unsettling theme of "Merchants of Doubt" is that noble individuals like James Hansen, a NASA scientist and climate change researcher, often are intimidated by the silver-tongued faux experts, and tend to shrink from public scrutiny. Like a clever attorney defending a murder suspect, an effective spin doctor creates doubt, albeit UN-reasonable doubt, and if he or she can convince people that something may not be all that bad, facts fall by the wayside, and change will not be forthcoming.
This documentary salutes the integrity and courage, thankfully, of one conservative politician, former Republican Congressman from South Carolina, Bob Inglis. When he saw "incontrovertible evidence of climate change", he went public with his new insight. Unfortunately, ignorant South Carolina voters rejected his stance, and he was trounced in his subsequent re-election effort.
Kenner's film is not all that doom-and-gloom. It is spiced up with interesting characters like sleight-of-hand magician Jamy Ian Swiss, who dazzles his small, live audience with playing-card maneuvers, even explaining, on one such occasion in slow motion, how he did it. But as Kenner says: "Once revealed, never concealed" --- a truism he hopes applies to much more than a simple card trick.
Opinion: Strong See It Now