Merchants of Doubt (2014) –Certainty Nonetheless

Merchants of Doubt movie

This film, is based on the 2010 non-fiction book by Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes and NASA historian Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt is magnificently directed by the Oscar nominated filmmaker, Robert Kenner (“Food, Inc.”).

This film is about the tactics used repeatedly by pseudo-experts to mislead the public about scientific findings critical to commercial products or practices. The tactics have not fundamentally changed in the more than fifty years since the cigarette industry began its suppression of the dangers of smoking tobacco. Kenner has brilliantly spliced together footage of several pseudo-experts, two of whom are well-known: the now deceased Fred Seitz and his colleague Fred Singer. Under the mantle of being “scientists”, Fred Seitz (a nuclear physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb) and Fred Singer (also a physicist with some environmental science experience in mining) have become the most prominent deniers of scientific research that corporate America considers a threat to their bottom line. They were repeatedly called upon as experts across industries to refute negative findings reported by qualified experts. These “merchants of doubt” — or pseudo-experts– hide their funding sources and conflicts of interest in order to maintain their credibility and legitimacy. They make their living by opposing scientific evidence counter to corporate gains.

Cigarette manufacturers testified before Congress that the science community was wrong, citing arguments from Singer and Seitz. It didn’t matter that neither were experts in the fields of environmental medicine and pathology.

Most notably, the cohort of “merchants of doubt” insist that science is neither certain nor is there consensus on matters considered settled by the scientific community. In some instances, scientists who opposed these “merchants of doubt” were threatened. Testimony is particularly compelling and persuasive from legitimate experts who discovered the deceptions from the bogus scientific evidence they once accepted.

Merchants of Doubt also focuses on climate-change deniers. The deniers don’t contest the data, which is indisputable. They instead attack the climatologists’ motives, who they believe are communists ( a bit odd in my humble opinion). Of course, these “experts” have no knowledge or training in meteorology or climatology. Singer and Seitz, the very same physicists formerly used by cigarette manufacturers to deny the hazards of smoking, hold themselves out as experts on climate change. Seitz is still active today denying human impact on the planet.

A small handful of other scientists and marketing gurus have made a living by representing conservative thinktanks such as the Heritage Foundation. The industries underwriting these foundations can create a patina of respectability and credibility by citing a “senior fellow at a prominent Washington thinktank”.

And most shattering, the Merchants Of Doubt implicates the media for not investigating climate change more thoroughly, and for giving equal voice to these political thinktanks, all in the name of appearing unbiased.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most chilling documentaries I have seen. Manipulation of public opinion is a controversial subject not limited to just political campaigns. Kenner delivers a powerful message about the tactics some industries will employ to make a buck at humanity’s expense. You owe it to yourself to see this one.

 

Ozark–A Stark, Dark Thriller

Ozark Netflix original series

This Netflix Original series (released July 21 of this year) was created by screenwriter Bill Dubuque (known for The Accountant, see my review). Ozark is so good it approaches the standard set by “Breaking Bad”.

The series showcases Chicago financial planner Marty Byrde (a sensational Jason Bateman from “Arrested Development”) and his wife Wendy (the impeccable Laura Linney of “Masterpiece Theater”)  a homemaker turned real estate agent. The couple relocate with their son and daughter to the Lake of the Ozarks, a summer resort community in Missouri.  Marty must find a way to  continue to launder  money for a Mexican drug cartel.

What ensues in ten episodes is a taut thriller with plot twists which are neither slow nor predictable. Ozark is populated with some seriously heinous flawed characters: think Walter White. But then again “flawed characters” are just more interesting, as long as we can understand their motivations. There is no message of hope–at least not so far. and the only reality we witness is of extremely wounded personalities.

The scenes from the Byrde marriage recall the relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards. Jason Bateman and Laura Linney have a conjugal dance that leaves the viewer cringing at each blow and confrontation.

Although the acting and dialog are brillant, Ozark may fall outside of some viewers comfort zones. While you would not want to be friends with ANY of the main characters, a few scenes may be “over the top” for some.

One criticism I do have of “Ozark” is that the minor characters who live in the Lake of the Ozarks are playing to type–or maybe stereotype–of rednecks–uneducated and desperate– who can’t think of any other life choices besides crime. There are a brother-sister pair attempting to escape their circumstances but tremendous fear and family loyalty prevent them from exiting their miserable situation. Mexicans are also stereotyped as either in drug cartels or “cleaning toilets”. Those aspects of Ozark I find offensive, and wish screenwriters would work a little harder at making their point rather than perpetrating stereotypes. The narrative is otherwise superb.

“Ozark carefully guides the audience through the story, sometimes to excess. (For example, one episode unnecessarily is devoted almost entirely to backstory.)  However, Ozark is far from predictable. Bateman’s disarming and deceptively complex performance contributes greatly to his character’s evolution. He’s not sympathetic, and he’s not good, but he’s not as bad as he could be. He is desperate to protect his family as well as to survive. He is smart, employing any ruthless means at his disposal.

Please hurry with the release of the next season!

Note: [Not a spoiler alert) The finale is an editing anomaly in comparison to the preceding episodes. I thought it was a bit sloppy and melodramatic, detracting from the overall craft of screenwriting throughout this notable series.

 

Ingrid Goes West–Don’t Tag Along

Ingrid Goes West

Social media can evoke strong feelings. There have been a number of critically acclaimed plays, movies, and television series dealing with the impact of social media, mostly negative, and primarily associated with depression (which social scientific research currently validates). Examples aren’t hard to find: “13 Reasons Why”, “Dear Evan Hansen”, one episode from “Black Mirror”. Ingrid Goes West can be added to this growing subgenre.

An unhinged social media stalker, Ingrid Thorburn (comically and poignantly played by Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation”), is a social outcast looking for a BFF. She discovers the virtual life of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram “star”, whose perfect virtual lifestyle becomes Ingrid’s latest obsession. So Ingrid decides to leave her boring life behind and move to LA. What ensues is at times hilarious with satirical insights for our media-crazed world.

The themes in Ingrid Goes West are obvious and one-dimensional: social media is an illusionary world, narcissistic (Trump, anyone?) and better than it seems. Yet, Ingrid’s pathological need for attention and social acceptance are believable, especially from a vulnerable 20-something woman. No one is likable in Ingrid Goes West, especially Ingrid. But I wanted to have empathy for Ingrid’s flawed character: she displays total disregard for right and wrong. Ingrid has little remorse for her actions, and less compassion for others.

Ingrid Goes West leaves this viewer wondering how far would we go to fit in to a group we consider important for our well-being. How far would you go to be accepted or consent to be manipulated?

The angst that engulfs Ingrid is seen in her face, her body language, the way she obsesses. Desperate to distract herself from who she really is for who she wants people to think she is,   social media filters her life choices with the imaginary friends usually associated with very young children.

The satire of Ingrid Goes West has become a bit of a fault line. Those inclined to think scrolling through your phone is anti-social, may think Ingrid Goes West is vapid Tweeting.  But I looked at it as a takedown of hashtags, Instagram pics, “likes” and emojis. It’s perhaps more accurate to call this movie a critique of human behavior and the social media’s impact on all of us, an impact we don’t fully understand yet, since the technology is new but ubiquitous. The insidiousness of social media can turn toxic. Additionally, Facebok, Instagram, and Twitter can hold up a mirror to us and a metric for not only vanity but for community and what constitutes it.

 

Note:  As of this writing, Ingrid Goes West is playing in theaters nationwide.

 

 

Maudie–Anything but Maudlin

 

Guest post by   Romalyn Tilghman, author of To the Stars Through Difficulties 

 

Maudie the movie
Maudie

Maudie is the fictionalized account of the life of a self-taught artist, Maud Lewis (1903-1970), who lived in Nova Scotia. Maud (played by Sally Hawkins) answers an ad from fishmonger Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) to clean his filthy, one-room shack shared with his chickens and dogs. Despite rheumatoid arthritis and slowness of speech, Maud becomes dedicated to serving him. Everett, having grown up in an orphanage and now living miles from town, epitomizes the curmudgeonly, reclusive bachelor.

The dialogue in Maudie is sparse, showcasing the actors’ gestures and facial expressions. The Nova Scotia landscape is stark but beautiful and so is the evolving companionship between Everett and Maud. Their relationship is never easy, but we watch as their respect, codependence, and even love, builds over the course of the movie, despite the ever-present tension.

Maud’s cheerful folk-art paintings bring not only light to their small wooden cabin but also to a larger art world thanks to a New York benefactor. The patroness instantly sees the appeal of Maud’s colorful trees, cats and birds, at first created only with the remnants of house paint.

I was disappointed that Maudie didn’t reveal more of the joy the artist must have felt in her own work. Photographs, of both the real Maud Lewis and her paintings, are featured in the end credits and show clearly that such joy did exist. But, despite watching a difficult relationship in hard times, we do understand that windows of light may frame the vast and sometimes dark landscape which includes our psychological home. As Maud finds cheer beyond the walls of her ramshackle home, she tells us, “The whole of life is already framed.” She shows us a new way of seeing our world.

Note: One of the voices in my novel, To the Stars Through Difficulties, is of a 30-something self-taught artist, nicknamed Trash, who was rescued from a garbage can on Times Square when she was only hours old. Using only recycled materials, she finds her own worth through self-expression and art-making. As an artist-in-residence in Kansas, she discovers both fulfillment and friendship.