WHEN THE REVOLUTION comes, a solid argument could be made that the first against the wall should be the lobbyists, the pundits, and the scientists-for-hire. As illustrated by Merchants of Doubt, these are the assholes who have delayed us in—if not entirely kept us from—addressing issues ranging from smoking to climate change. They're the so-called experts who're paid to speak up in favor of corporations' status quo and help fight government regulation—regardless of who might die or what harm might be done. And they do it by showing up as talking heads on cable news, or by pretending to be concerned citizens writing letters to the op-ed pages. First they sound perfectly reasonable, and then they "manufacture doubt"—establishing just enough uncertainty to delay progress.
These intellectual mercenaries make for fascinating, horrifyingly influential subjects. Too bad, then, that Merchants of Doubt ends up mimicking one of the tactics of its subjects: It livens things up to the point of distraction. Instead of digging into how these people and their tactics work, Robert Kenner (who previously directed the significantly better Food, Inc.) instead offers a whole lot of animations, cheesy stock footage, cutesy musical cues, and a magician (okay!), who talks about sleight of hand and serves as a not-particularly-subtle stand-in for the documentary's villains. There's serious stuff here—like, you know, the unraveling of American discourse and democracy—but Merchants of Doubt's rambling focus and chirpy tone keep it from meaningfully exploring these systems of corruption.
And weirdly, the film never addresses something lurking in the background: our responsibility in educating ourselves. Merchants of Doubt is a film about salesmen, but it still seems strange that it never spares even a glance at the suckers who keep buying. There's no question that it's easy for quack doctors and PR flacks to persuade us of something wrong (just look at any Portlander who voted against fluoride). There is a question, though, about why we're disinterested in educating ourselves instead of thinking, and voting, as we're told.