Inspired by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conways acclaimed book, MERCHANTS OF DOUBT takes audiences on a comedic yet illuminating ride into the heart of conjuring American spin. Filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the curtain on a secretive group of highly charismatic, silver tongued pundits-for-hire who present themselves in the media as scientific authorities yet contrarily are aiming to spread maximum confusion about well-studied public threats ranging from toxic chemicals to pharmaceuticals to climate change.
When I sit down to view a documentary I'm usually keenly aware that I'm usually going to see someone's personal bent. Unless you're watching the latest Ken Burns 25 part series on PBS, documentaries often struggle to remain objective. I've always felt that objectivity is essential for a documentary - especially a politically motivated film - in order to maintain a sense of honesty. The mirror must have two faces. When you get a film like Robert Kenner's 'Merchants of Doubt' you get a decidedly one-sided argument that winds up being no better than the subjects of propaganda the film seeks to bing to light to and expose.
'Merchants of Doubt' is a film that seeks to delve into the world of political and economic spin doctors and the effect they have in the arguments of cigarettes, chemical exposure, and climate change. From the opening moments, this film makes no bones about it that these men and women who take scientific information, pick it apart, and spin it into falsehoods are the bad guys. The film then grabs any number of experts - including people that participated in scientific studies - and then uses them to point out all the misinformation. While this would seem like a great way to frame a debate - the opening of the film featuring Jamy Ian Swiss, a magician entertaining people at L.A.'s Magic Castle, pretty much sums up the entire 93 minute thesis of this move - these spin doctors are dishonest people who are usually shills for a right wing agenda.
In a nut shell, that is the entirety of 'Merchants of Doubt.' It moves from one politically charged topic to the next, points out the figure heads at the center of controversy and demonizes them while putting a single scientist or activist on the pedestal of infallible honesty and integrity. Now as a pragmatic person, I try to remain politically moderate. I have a strong nose for B.S. and when someone starts preaching to me - even if I may agree with their point of view - I habitually play devil's advocate to provide a sense of balance. 'Merchants of Doubt' made me play devil's advocate for over an hour and a half.
It's extremely easy to take three politically charged subjects like climate change, smoking, and the chemical industry, point out the fallacies of the other point of view or the tactics that are used to contribute to the public confusion and call it a day. In taking the easy way out, Robert Kenner also takes the coward's way out. While I lean on the side of agreement with a lot of this film's topics - I'm inherently annoyed that this film fails to hold that same mirror to topics left leaning individuals hold near and dear. That would have been the honest and responsible thing to do in pointing out how both sides of a given topic use media and language to confuse a public to thinking the way they want them to about a specific issue. I like to watch documentaries to be entertained and educated about a topic I don't know much about. 'Merchants of Doubt' wasn't an educating or enlightening experience; it was pandering.
By failing to be impartial and truly objective in its approach, 'Merchants of Doubt' becomes something of a farce. Taking the film on the nose and not delving to deeply into the subject matter, the film ultimately feels like something topical that John Stewart would lampoon for five minutes on 'The Daily Show.' Only this film doesn't have a sense of humor and is completely unaware of the irony in how it has positioned itself. By trying to expose the propaganda machine of one side of a specific issue it therefor becomes propaganda for the other side of said issue. I don't mind people having their unique points of view and I let them rail away if that what makes them feel better for a moment, but if I start to get lectured like I'm someone incapable of coming to a rational conclusion when faced with a mountain of evidence - I get more than a little irritated. And when a movie pretending to be a documentary does it - the "stop" and "eject" buttons on my remote control start to look very appealing. 'Merchants of Doubt' could have been an amazing piece of filmmaking - but it takes the low road and only presents half of the material. If you're going to present an argument about pundits and the measures they take to manipulate a story, make sure you present the entire argument. By making the other side look evil or conniving you just make more noise that plays to a base. I seriously doubt this film will appeal to anyone not already in agreement with it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Merchants of Doubt' arrives on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Classics and is pressed on a Region Free BD50 disc. With an identical DVD disc included, both discs are housed in a standard eco-friendly case. The disc opens to six trailers for other Sony Pictures Classic releases before finally arriving to the main menu.
As a documentary that uses film and video footage dating back to the 1950s, the image quality is expectedly all over the map. Primarily this film is framed at 1.78:1 and is shot digitally. Because most of the film features the subject sitting at a desk and talking to the camera - it's a relatively uninteresting looking movie. Detail is strong and colors appear accurate. Depth and over all picture quality is at its strongest whenever the film is talking to magician Jamy Ian Swiss at The Magic Castle - he's got the most interesting set. As such it's relatively difficult to grade the score since so many elements are made up from so many different film and video stocks. On the whole it gets the job done, it's just not an earth-shattering image.
Sporting a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, 'Merchants of Doubt' doesn't make much use of the surround channels. Why it was mixed that way is beyond me as 99% of the audio seems to keep to the center stereo channels and rarely - if ever - moves around the sides. As a dialogue heavy film, voices are heard crystal clear and there is plenty of separation from the film's music tracks. There is very little sound effects to push things around - again the few scenes at The Magic Castle get the most dynamic range and feature the best moments of audio fidelity. While not every impressive, this track does get the job done.
Audio Commentary: Director Robert Kenner runs the track solo and while the track is over all pretty informative when it comes to discussing the genesis of the project and his experiences talking or not being able to speak to people - there are several long gaps where he's silent. It makes me wonder if this track wasn't edited by a legal department and makes me curious to find out what he said and why it was edited.
An Evening At The Toronto International Film Festival: (HD 17:44) A pretty basic Q&A session where Director Robert Kenner answers some fan questions and provides some production anecdotes that aren't mentioned in the commentary.
Unlikely Voices: Three conservative pundits Swiss Re, Debbie Dooley, and George Shultz get a couple minutes each to talk about why they switched sides on the climate change issue. These interviews are effectively the "deleted scenes" listed on the back of the case.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 2:00) Basically this trailer is the movie digested down to 120 seconds. You get a sense for the film pretty quick and after watching the main feature, there aren't many surprises.
'Merchants of Doubt' is just one of those movies that I didn't connect with in a practical way. It's a movie with a message that I am sure many people will take to heart and get riled up about - but I was far more distracted by how the message was presented. While I agreed with a number of points the film raises, I felt like it's something that contributes to the noise rather than works to clear the air. With a decent video presentation, a serviceable audio track and an assortment of extras, I'm calling this one as a rental. Even if you're someone who falls in line with the film's every point I don't see it as a film that one needs to watch over and over again.