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Arts & Entertainment

AFI Fest: 'Merchants of Doubt' is the Lord's work, done badly

"Merchants of Doubt," a new documentary from Robert Kenner.
Sony Pictures Classics

Off-Ramp contributor RH Greene continues his journey through some of the more prominent AFI Fest titles with Oscar-nominated documentarian Robert Kenner's new movie "Merchants of Doubt."

I'm personally quite sympathetic to the impulse behind "Merchants of Doubt," the new documentary from the Oscar-nominated Robert Kenner ("Food, Inc."), which he based on the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. I think the planet is warming. I think human beings are the cause. I think the evidence is overwhelming. I think the counter-argument is so clearly manipulated by vested interests it would be laughable, if the stakes weren't so high.

WATCH: A clip from Robert Kenner's "Merchants of Doubt"

In other words, I'm the ideal audience for "Merchants of Doubt."

Which is basically the only audience for "Merchants of Doubt."

And that's just one problem with a film that could more accurately be called "Preachers to Choirs."

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The issue in this structurally diffuse issues-oriented documentary is that the same overpaid spin doctors and some of the same scientists who were responsible for Big Tobacco's 50-year campaign to avoid government regulation are running their old playbook to push climate change skepticism. This is indeed an intriguing revelation. Or at least it was, when it was originally brought forth by, for instance, Steve Connor, the science editor for "The Independent," in March of 2008.

That's nearly seven years ago. It's been nearly five since the publication of "Merchants of Doubt" in book form. Kenner, who should be praised for scoring some pretty frank interviews with prominent members of the Denial Industrial Complex, has done enough original research that there's probably some new material in this movie, but if so, then it's invisible to the naked eye. (It doesn't help that Oreskes is one of Kenner's core interviews and is basically called upon to re-enact researching the book that the film is based on). Even if you've been peripherally paying attention to the climate "debate," everything in "Merchants of Doubt" will feel like received wisdom, and it's delivered with all the subtlety of an ice bucket challenge.

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The ruling visual metaphor is sleight of hand, introduced by stage magician Jamy Ian Swiss doing card tricks. It's a ham-fisted device and one the film is inordinately proud of. The opening credits are an elongated sequence of decks being cut and cards being forced. There are continuous cutbacks to Swiss demonstrating and explaining his craft. At the end of the movie we get one of those condescending "exhortation to action" cards with a web address and a catchphrase: "Don't Let Them Stack the Deck!"

(Kenner's previous film, "Food, Inc.")

All pretty self important for a film whose big takeaway is that we should all be shocked to learn that major corporations manipulate public debate on the issues that threaten their self interest, using surrogates and corporate flacks.

It adds up to a movie that, even to this sympathetic viewer, is pretty slight. You can score points by doing the Lord's work, only to lose them all by doing it badly.