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Movie review

‘Merchants’ raises the doubt of climate change

Marc Morano in “Merchants of Doubt.”Don Lenzer/Sony Pictures Classics

Illusionist and self-proclaimed fraud Jamy Ian Swiss is having a busy week on the big screen. In addition to appearing in “An Honest Liar,” a profile of the famed magician and crusader against con artists James “The Amazing” Randi, Swiss opens Robert Kenner’s slick and depressing documentary “Merchants of Doubt” with some fancy card tricks and a diatribe against those who deceive not to entertain but “to manipulate people . . . and their sense of reality.”

He’s talking about those pulling off the biggest scam of the past 40 years — the debate over climate change. Not the scientists whose research confirms the phenomenon’s existence, but the PR hacks hired by the corporations for whom it is convenient to deny the truth or at least raise doubts about it.


To make his point clear, Kenner follows up Swiss’s magic act and fancy patter with a snappy montage of various experts over the years denying that cigarettes cause cancer, or extolling the virtues of pesticide, or proclaiming that asbestos is “designed to last a lifetime — a trouble free lifetime.” And then the inevitable parade of climate change deniers bloviating in Congress or on cable news, all backed by Sinatra singing “That Old Black Magic.”

Subtle, it’s not. But it is effective. The days when Al Gore could mobilize a nation with wonky charm and a PowerPoint presentation are over. As Marc Morano says, “keep it short, keep it simple, keep it funny.”

And who is Marc Morano? He’s the lovable scamp who founded and who often appears on TV debunking scientists trying to explain the subtleties of the unfolding environmental disaster. Morano’s debate tactics include sarcasm and ad hominem attacks. Sometimes he sends obscene and threatening e-mails. Kenner in the press notes acknowledges a begrudging admiration for Morano, whose gleefully unabashed amorality is at least refreshing. And he admits that the Morano approach of targeting the opponent and not his or her argument, of making the debate a matter of ideology and not facts, of reducing the issue to easily parroted slogans and canards, has served well the purposes of those profiting from the coming catastrophe.


So Kenner employs similar tactics (presumably not the e-mails) in his film, which can be accused of being partisan and simplistic but never dull. He also emulates the style of Errol Morris, especially with his use of whimsical effects and graphics and a (mostly) off-screen interrogator whose affable demeanor invites trust until he unloads the crushing question or comment.

Meanwhile, those who want to keep the American public in doubt about irrefutable facts follow the playbook that worked so well for the tobacco industry. As Swiss explains, these are the same methods as those used by legit magicians and three card monte hucksters alike: tricks such as misdirection (e.g., it’s not about science, it’s about big government telling us what to do, it’s about creeping socialism, etc.) and the use of shills (i.e., supposedly objective spokesmen making the con seem legit).

Maybe Kenner’s hipper, glibber approach can counteract this strategy. As one investigator says, the truth always will out. Even Big Tobacco lost in the end. The problem is that it took 50 years. By that time there may no longer be doubts about the truth of climate change, but there won’t be any solutions, either.