Merchants of Doubt (Robert Kenner, 2014): United States

Reviewed by Claire Waterhouse. Viewed in Hollywood at the AFI Fest 2014.

Merchants of Doubt pulls us in immediately. Known for his truthful and creative investigations into America and our corporations, director Robert Kenner again takes us on a journey of knowledge and discovery and unveils the truth behind Public Relations firms and their influence on the world we live in. Merchants of Doubt is all about the art of deception.This film takes place in present day but equally shows us archival footage through its interviews with corporations and people involved in these issues of false advertising.  We are also shown newspaper article, books, statistics and files pertaining to old investigations and casing regarding PR firms and their stance and involvement in the advertising and promotion of cigarettes and other chemicals. We are shown footage of court cases and testimonies from the companies and their employees and we can see from these clips how they have blatantly lied and continue to lie to the American public. We are given insight into the industry and its malicious ways through interviews and testimonies. The film although serious, includes a few entertaining sequences at LA’s very own, Magic Castle. We are shown the tricks of the trade by an expert in trickery, magician, Jamy Ian Swiss showing us his tricks and how he fools over his audience. These scenes are humorous and distract us away from the harm that these people and corporations have caused although they eventually tie back into this idea of deception. This film exposes the faults of these companies and in many ways, reminds me of Kenner’s film, Food, Inc. and Nick Broomfield’s documentary, Tales of the Grim Sleeper. Music is also used generously in this film, providing humor and insight into the scenes. The music is a mixture of modern day songs and older more classic pieces of music and this coincides with the use of present day interviews and the inclusion of archival footage. The camera gets close to people’s faces and this camerawork throughout the film seems similar to cinéma vérité where the camera is used to reveal those being interviewed to reveal the truth to the lens. Similar to the film, Clouds of Sils Maria, this film is split up into different parts according to the  periods of time, although this film differs in that it is is a documentary. The film is entertaining and informative, a perfect mix. It is successful in its information and presentation and measures up well against Kenner’s prior success, Food, Inc. In watching this documentary I feel as though I gained an in depth look at another industry typically hidden from us and was exposed to information that is finally and rightfully seeping out after all these years of lies and cover ups. This film, like Food Inc.,  makes us want to learn and continue to question what we are fed by the media, as well as what is kept hidden.

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