The climate change eye-opener “An Inconvenient Truth” was a crossover success in 2006, winning Best Documentary Feature and ranking among the top 10 highest grossing documentaries of all time in the US. This year, after almost a decade of political inaction, “Merchants of Doubt” revisits the same territory but from a different point of view: not presenting the climate-change evidence, but rather asking what fuels the science-denial that has prevented meaningful action. It premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 8 and will get an Oscar-qualifying run in December before an official release next spring.
This kind of sociopolitical documentary often succeeds at the Oscars, like recent champs “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about America’s use of torture; “The Cove,” about the killing of dolphins in Japan; and “Inside Job,” which explored the 2008 financial crisis. But in recent years, politics have been out of fashion with the academy. The last three Documentary Feature prizes went to feel-good films: “Undefeated” (2011), “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012), and “20 Feet from Stardom” (2013).
Two years ago, the academy also opened up its voting process, allowing the entire academy membership to pick the winner. Does that mean populism is in and hard-hitting topics like “Merchants of Doubt” are out of luck?
“Merchants” director Robert Kenner previously scored a Documentary Feature nomination for “Food Inc.,” which took a similarly comprehensive, investigative approach to explore the power and influence of the food industry. That film lost to the aforementioned “Cove.”
With “Merchants,” Kenner wants to appeal to the audience’s sense of outrage at the sleight of hand used by moneyed interests to generate doubt about uncontested science, and Kenner succeeds if I and my fellow press and industry attendees are any indication. The director explained his intended goal for the film, saying, “I think some days I’m pretty pessimistic at how serious this issue is, but there are other days I think how quickly it could change. I hope this film doesn’t leave you feeling hopeless, I hope it leaves people feeling really angry that we’ve been lied to and manipulated.”