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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 23, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

Review: Fusion of science and magic makes documentary a success

"Merchants of Doubt"

Directed by Robert Kenner

Although the concepts of magic tricks and global warming seem to have absolutely nothing in common, the 2014 satirical documentary “Merchants of Doubt” successfully ties the two together. Through the clever directing of Robert Kenner, the documentary addresses environmental issues such as toxic chemicals, tobacco and climate change while integrating illusions from magicians. The film sends the message that the ways companies advertise global issues are similar to magic tricks: They’re all illusions society falls for. Magicians perform many tricks and illusions during the movie, focusing on the theme of perception and connecting it to environmental crises. While this documentary has a first impression of targeting people with an intense interest in environmental science, it approaches the issue in different ways that allow anyone watching to understand and empathize with the message of the movie.

Kenner has been previously known for his successful documentaries such as “Food, Inc.” and “The American Experience.” “Merchants of Doubt” is his most recent documentary, which sardonically explores the dangers of the miscommunication of scientific data. Throughout the film, several professional scientists share their views and research on topics concerning human health in relation to the environment with sarcastic, dry humor. The wit in the movie allows the documentary to be more lighthearted than the issue that is being addressed, so audience members will not feel like they’re simply attending another science class.

Not only does the film show environmental crises, but it also shows society’s reactions to them. By showing society’s split reactions, it allows people to see both sides of the arguments and develop different perspectives on how to handle these issues. Though scientists present hard truths through data, they are merely accused by society of making false claims and receive many malicious comments from everyday people.

Several different types of people are brought into the mix as well such as journalists, magicians and common bystanders. Combined, they show the prevalent ignorance toward issues such as climate change, tobacco and pharmaceuticals.

For people who don’t enjoy science or find it difficult to process heavy information, this documentary is still enjoyable. Although the film jumps from topic to topic, it does so at a speed any audience member will be able to keep up with. The film does an admirable job of educating audience members, as well as allowing breaks now and then for viewers to process the information shown.

The way the documentary addresses the issues presented makes them comprehensible and relatable for any type of person. As “Merchants of Doubt” addresses different environmental issues, it always ends up tying them back to common bystanders and how the issues affect society as a whole.

This film shows how environmental issues are even brought into politics and journalism, as both professions get picked on for the showcasing of the scientists’ research and data.

Every audience member will be able to take away something from this movie thanks to the wide range of perspectives about environmental issues the film offers — from the viewpoints of scientists to politicians to people in an everyday environment. There are plenty of visuals, charts and pictures that allows the audience to understand the complicated terms and explanations associated with environmental science. While the film does show how different jobs are affected by the environmental studies scientists have been doing, it also shows how people in their daily lives are affected by the environment. The film sends a powerful message that by changing daily actions, society can make a positive difference in communities by being environmentally friendly.