A documentary spin on Thank You for Smoking, Robert Kenner’s Merchants of Doubt is a side-eye look at the spin doctors who are paid to confuse us. Racing through a brief history of corporate misdirection (the origins of which involve Big Tobacco paying a guy to convince people that furniture was more of a factor in house fires than cigarettes), the film looks at how deception has metastasized in the age of 24-hour news networks, focusing on the handsomely compensated yet hideously unqualified television pundits who exist to dissuade us of the most inconvenient truths. Sure, 97 percent of scientists may agree that climate change is real and humans are causing it, but when one of the two people on screen is arguing the contrary, the illusion of a debate is engineered.
Good intentions, however, only get you so far. Redundant in a world where The Daily Show exists, Merchants of Doubt belabors its obvious points about mass deception with a painfully literal framing device in which an illusionist performs his tricks. It’s the first and most exasperating indication that this film about the rift between science and entertainment is going to plummet down the same chasm it’s trying to illuminate. The slickness of Kenner’s presentation ironically distracts from the meat of his exposé—he draws a lucid connection between denial and doomsday, but in failing to broach the media’s role in giving equal attention to unequal arguments, he hates the players while ignoring the game. Kenner argues that scientists aren’t trained to compete with pundits, but he wants to sell you on the idea that every climatologist is Rain Man. If Merchants of Doubt ultimately proves that good data doesn’t often make for good drama, it’s only because this doc is such a hollow slog.
Follow David Ehrlich on Twitter: @davidehrlich