Merchants of Doubt Blu-ray Review

How ironic that the last Blu-ray I reviewed, about legendary showman Evel Knievel, highlighted his great skills at marketing. Marketing is what gets butts in the seats. It’s also what tells us what’s good for us and what isn’t. I think it was sometime in 1972 when I asked my father to stop smoking because I had heard it wasn’t healthy. I made that same request for the next 36 years, until he finally died. MERCHANTS OF DOUBT takes a long, hard look at various problems facing the world and the attempts by the problem causers to focus the attention elsewhere.

Merchants of Doubt

According to internal documents presented in the film, the tobacco industry has been able to link cigarette smoking to cancer and heart disease as far back as 1952. Yet, in a “60 Minutes” television expose’ in 1984, a company representative states that doctor’s aren’t really sure about that. That is called “casting doubt” and that is what the owners of big tobacco were told to do when they hired a public relations firm in the early 1960s. When one “scientist” is asked if big tobacco has been irresponsible in selling their product, he replies that it is, in fact, the cigarette smoker who is the irresponsible party. That we later learn the “scientist” is a long time, yet secreted, employee of one of the tobacco companies is almost a no brainer. Similar battles are fought every day, be it alcohol, prescription drugs or chemicals. It takes pounds of chemical dust to make furniture, mattresses and similar items fire retardant. However, those chemicals have been found to be toxic to many people, from the children sleeping in them to the firefighters who must battle fires. When a push was made to remove these chemicals a doctor would testify about a young child whose mother put a candle in its crib. Of course, the untreated mattress caught fire and the baby died a horrible, prolonged death. The chemicals stayed. Only when a curious reporter began investigating and found out that the doctor had told similar stories (different children, same outcome) at other hearings did the truth come out. The doctor, when confronted with this, explains that he was just telling antidotal stories, not relating things that actually happened. The doctor, it’s later learned, was on the payroll of the chemical company in question.

Merchants of Doubt

Unlike most documentaries, which try to present both sides of the story, MERCHANTS OF DOUBT points a figure at these companies and says, “Bad boy!” This is especially evident during the main portion of the film, which concerns itself with global warming. Again, talking heads are shown presenting the case that this condition is non-existent and are then shot down by others. This subject takes up more than half of the film and the idea is pretty much beaten into the ground. In fact, by the time the film ended I was tired of hearing the phrase “global warming” being uttered, no matter what side of the coin was being projected.


Video: Presented in its original 1:78.1 aspect ratio, the film’s interview elements are sharp and clear. Like a lot of documentaries, the quality of some of the old footage – some going back 50 years – is only as good as the source material.

Audio: The soundtrack is delivered in DTS- Master Audio 5.1 and comes through cleanly.

Audio Commentary: Robert Kenner, the film’s director, provides a very informative accompanying commentary, sharing some interesting bits not covered in the film. He doesn’t talk a lot, so expect some gaps between tidbits of information.

An Evening at the Toronto International Film Festival with Robert Kenner (17:45): The director engages in a Q&A with Thom Powers, who is the Festival’s film programmer.

Unlikely Voices: Three short segments with two people and one business that proclaim themselves environmentally friendly: Conservatives for Energy Freedom Founder Debbie Dooley (2:01), former Reagan-era Secretary of State George Shultz (1:50) and the insurance company Swiss Re (1:43).

Theatrical trailer


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