A review of “Merchants of Doubt,” a documentary about the pundits that helped shape the national conversation about smoking. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
Back in the 1950s, cigarette manufacturers learned, through study after study, that their product was, to put it mildly, harmful to its users. Upon realizing this, the industry didn’t immediately clutch its pearls and find a way to reduce the danger. Instead, as Robert Kenner’s entertaining yet alarming documentary “Merchants of Doubt” tells us, they hired a PR firm — whose job it was to cast doubt on the studies. And in doing so, they kicked off a whole new tradition of spin.
The film, which has a disarmingly jaunty tone, introduces us to some of those champion spinners; slick, smooth-talking pundits paid by big companies to help shape the national conversation on such topics as tobacco, pharmaceuticals, food, chemicals and climate change. Some are so brazen that you wonder if, out of camera range, their pants are indeed on fire. One surgeon, a hired voice for the flame-retardant industry, is confronted about how his heartbreaking stories about infants burned to death in their cribs are, it turned out, entirely made up. His reply: “It wasn’t factual. It was anecdotal. I wasn’t under oath.” A tobacco-industry rep cheerfully dodges the question of whether cigarettes are harmful, noting that “anything can be considered harmful. Apple sauce is harmful if you get too much of it.”
You leave “Merchants of Doubt,” as you do any good muckraking documentary, both fascinated and enraged — at how science and fact can get hidden behind a cloud of PR haze (taking advantage of the fact, as one researcher notes, that “most scientists are not good communicators”). And you’re reminded, memorably, of the old saying: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
Movie Review ★★★
‘Merchants of Doubt,’ a documentary directed by Robert Kenner. 93 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Sundance Cinemas (21+), Meridian.