Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 06, 2014 5:51 pm 
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For my full coverage of the 2014 NYFF see also FILMLEAF.


The PR guys -- "pundits for hire" -- behind climate change denying

Robert Kenner is a muckraking documentary filmmaker of the anti-corporate kind. He is known for the 2009 Food, Inc., a film showing that US food production is a virtual monopoly of a small number of corporations. In Merchants of Doubt, he fixes his sights on shills, think tanks, and lobbyists whose aim is to debunk global warming, in the interests of producers of "dirty" energy, mostly petroleum and coal. His first discovery and perhaps most important revelation is that many of these people previously worked to debunk the danger of tobacco smoking. This failed; nobody can credibly claim that smoking doesn't kill you and that nicotine isn't addictive. So they moved on to the far more important cause: climate change. Kenner's metaphor, his frame-image, is of the professional magician or card manipulator. The "merchants of doubt," the agents of climate change deniers, use similar tricks, he suggests. Only a magician is honest about what he is doing. These guys aren't.

This is a conventional "issue" documentary. The issue is important, but the style of the film, a mix of talking heads and perky visual aids, is nothing unusual. In fact, much of the material is familiar too: if you watch "issue" documentaries, from An Inconvenient Truth on, you're aware of global warming as depicted in films. A stunnng example isJeff Orlowski's 2012 Chasing Ice, which documents the disappearance of glaciers. Chasing Ice, made over time by a then Stanford student, little more than a kid, which popped up at Sundance two years ago, is a stunning proof of what the heating up of the planet is doing. It might be more powerful to raise awareness.

Kenner's film is a partial explanation of why nothing substantial is being done by the US to reverse or slow down global warming. Perhaps the biggest explanation is that to control this process requires, as Merchants of Doubt mentions toward the end, requires changes in our way of life all over the planet that it's virtually inconceivable. The more specific obstacle is the oil companies. These are the richest and most powerful corporations on the planet. How do you stop them from manipulating the situation to go the way they want? Merchants of Doubt focuses on the agents of these corporations, their PR men.

The specific interest of Kenner's new film is that it identifies a number of people on both sides and presents their stories. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are people who have documented the anti-climate change hype-purveyors. Various lobbyists or spokesmen (some scientists, some mere lobbyists or spin doctors) are also named and chronicled in the film. For anyone interested in fighting in the cause of saving the planet, there is useful information here not only about who the main opponents like Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers are, and who their agents are, but the kinds of arguments they present and the venues in which they typically present them. But the film isn't a shocker like Chasing Ice or comprehensive and basic like An Inconvenient Truth, and ma tend to function more (though not entirely: newcomers to the issues can be shocked by this too) as preaching to the converted. It might even cut the other way though: as Justin Chang points out in his Telluride review for Variety, this film is so "intrigued by its designated villains that it almost conveys a perverse form of admiration, and the fascination proves contagious." They're slicker than scientists, who, Kenner shows, though the ones who know the subject are not always best at conveying what they know. This film is also a detailed study of lying and deception for money, a practice that can be observed in other fields.

This film was screened for this review as part of the Spotlight on Documentary sidebar of the 52nd New York Film Festival.

Merchants of Doubt, 96 mins., debuted at Telluride; at other festivals including Toronto. It was purchased by Sony Pictures Classics.

CK review of Food, Inc.

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