Robert Kenner’s gripping, nightmarish follow-up to his acclaimed 2008 environmental documentary FOOD, INC. takes a similarly intelligent look at the spin and controversy surrounding various hot topics in US political campaigning. It is Kenner’s thesis that public debate has been complicated and confused by special interest groups, whose tactics he cleverly dismantles as nothing short of sophisticated propaganda designed to prolong legislative action and mute public anger.
Focusing on multinational corporations in industries such as tobacco and automobile manufacture – that is, those which have the least to gain from discourse surrounding personal health and global warming – the film examines the insidious presence of a number of vocal individuals and organisations in public debate. Kenner coherently argues that key influencers – commonly referred to as ‘experts’ in the media – have frequently been bought, swayed and even in some instances entirely ‘manufactured’ by pressure groups with an investment in casting doubt on scientific evidence.
These influencers appear on television, in newsprint and even in governmental debates as charismatic and vocal doubters of widely accepted scientific evidence. As exasperating interviewee Marc Moran – himself one of these paid disciples of big business – points out, such individuals appear in stark contrast to actual scientists and experts, whose arguments can often be long-winded and difficult to follow, their delivery uncharismatic and dull. As a consequence, people like Moran are listened to and believed as if they truly were ‘experts’.
There’s a certain irony, of course, that a film which is so slickly assembled, with state-of-the-art visuals and expertly presented talking heads, has at its core a contention about the glib charisma, spin and style deployed to normalise even the most outlandish of arguments. Indeed, the film’s compelling style effectively substantiates its argument. The result is a fascinating and angry documentation of a trend in political propaganda that has terrifying implications for the way we process scientific arguments and take for granted the testimony of individuals in global media.
With so many documentaries treading the path of righteous indignation on environmental and societal issues, it is refreshing to see a film which engages from the ‘inside out’, as it were, rather than simply launching yet another attack on big business from a position of opposition. In that sense, MERCHANTS OF DOUBT can be enjoyed as both a vitally current issue doc and a sophisticated testament to the language of media and persuasion.