Strong New Docs on Hoaxers and Debunkers Reveal a Country Eager to Be Fooled
The Amazing Randi, just looking for frauds to expose
The public really doesn't listen when they're being told straightforward facts," says the Amazing Randi. The magician, escape artist, and tiny lion of principled skepticism, now north of 80, leans forward in a black chair, all knees and elbows and Old Testament beard. If it weren't for that sharpie's suit he's wearing, the kind that looks like it has face cards slipped between its every seam, he could be some wise-wizard marionette rigged up by the Henson workshop.
He's dismayed, thinking of frauds he's exposed, truths he's fought for, and the fact that America still hasn't run its psychics and UFO abductees and flimflam preachers out of the country on a rail. "They would rather accept what some charismatic character tells them than really think about what the truth might be," Randi says. "They'd rather have the romance and the lies."
Randi, of course, made truths romantic. An Honest Liar, the joyous new doc that plays more like a greatest hits compilation than a biography, treats us to his feats of Houdinism: squirming out of a straitjacket, trussed up by his feet, on Cross-Canada Hit Parade in the 1950s, timing his escape with the final notes of some chanteuse crooning through "(You've Got) The Magic Touch." (She's good, but she ain't the Platters.) In '76 he pulls another straitjacket stunt hanging over Niagara Falls — and that's just a year or two after he built the stage guillotine that allowed Alice Cooper to behead himself in concert. (Not a fan, Randi tells us he assumed at first that Alice was a woman.)
But the film's heart, like Randi's, is in the penetration of illusion, rather than its manufacture. The filmmakers are generous with clips of Randi's public debunking of conmen: Spoon-bending fraud Uri Geller looks helpless on The Tonight Show when Randi is allowed to introduce a control element into the psychic's demonstrations of his power. Almost as good: Randi proving to a young Barbara Walters that it's quite simple to duplicate Geller's stunt of bending a key with his mind. (Uh, it's not actually with his mind.) Walters looses a weepy cry more comic even than Gilda Radner's impersonation of her.
The highlight, of course, is Randi's exposure of the faith healer Peter Popoff, who encouraged his adherents to chuck out their medicine and let God treat their cancers. (Today, governors like Sam Brownback of Kansas make that official policy.) Popoff pretended that God was whispering to him the ailments of the believers at his revival rallies, but Randi's team proved that the whisperer was actually Popoff's wife, into the huckster's earpiece, reading from notecards the crowd had filled out beforehand. Like Randi's first takedown of Geller, this was broadcast on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and Randi cherishes Carson's amazement when the gag was revealed. That itself looks a little magical in hindsight. Late-night talk shows offering surprises, and operating, even occasionally, in the public good?
In 2010 Randi outed himself as gay, a fact the talking heads here sometimes tease ironies from: Was the great truth-teller hiding truths himself and blah blah blah? His late-life openness about who he is and how he lives builds to a dramatic final couple reels, as Randi's longtime partner, Jose Alvarez, lands in hot water with the government over some duplicity of his own. In the end, though, despite Randi's disappointment in us — Americans have, after all, continued to allow Popoff and Geller and the like to make quite profitable livings — the film reveals itself to have been a comedy all along: It wraps with a wedding.
Randi insists that we want to be fooled, that's it's easier and more comforting not to see unromantic truths. The great debunker never turns up in Robert Kenner's sly and enraging Merchants of Doubt, but his ideological progeny do. In both films, sleight-of-hand master Jamy Ian Swiss serves up jeweled axioms about why we believe, and in Merchants he even gets a couple seconds to dazzle with his card tricks, at one point explaining how he pulled one off. The tape plays back, and we see the hand we weren't looking at the first time. How could we have missed it? And how can magicians trust in democracy when they know how easily gulled the rest of us are?
In An Honest Liar, Swiss marvels at our luck that Randi uses his powers of deception for good; in Merchants, Swiss and a host of journalists and scientists lament how rare that choice is. The film, based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, examines the dismaying co-option of Randi's skepticism: the way that moneyed interests sell doubt to keep us from believing in things that actually are true — and damaging for business.
An episodic narrative vaults from the lies of the tobacco companies, which for half a century pretended there was no link between smoking and cancer, to those of the think-tanks that today have convinced about half of the American public that pretty much every scientist in the world has thrown in together to concoct the myth of climate change. (Even if that were possible, at what point do all those presumably paid-off scientists profit from the lie?) This material might be familiar to Frontline viewers and magazine readers, but Kenner's telling of the stories proves independently dramatic: It's heartening to hear Chicago Tribune reporters Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe dish about exposing the lies in the testimony of an expert witness for the manufacturers of flame-retardant (and carcinogenic) furniture. The scene would make a great Good Wife.
Kenner finds a magnificent antihero in Marc Morano, a cheery, chatty prevaricator who has made a mint by muddying water. His job is to promote skepticism of a truth that even Skeptic magazine believes in, and since Morano's cocksure, and good at yelling on TV, he steamrolls over climate scientists on cable despite his lack of expertise. In interviews, he's disarmingly guileless, happy to brag about all the times he's posted online the email addresses of climate scientists, some of whom turn up to read aloud from the death threats they get. The film and Morano agree on one thing: All that the deniers of climate change have to do to succeed is reduce the country's certainty. They've been wildly successful, as Kenner demonstrates — remember back in 2008, when Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Newt Gingrich all stated publicly that carbon emissions are the cause of global warming? Today, what office-seeking Republican would dare?
One of the last who did dare is former South Carolina representative Bob Inglis. After visiting Antarctica, and discovering scientists aren't all in cahoots with Karl Marx and the Masons or whatever, Inglis dared to call for a carbon tax from the floor of the House. Now an apostate without base or seat, he attempts to press the conservative case for not recklessly destroying the world. The film's most upsetting scene finds Inglis attempting to talk sense to Paul Gallo, a Mississippi talk-radio blowhard. Gallo is as unchangeable as the ice caps used to be, and he blinks at Inglis in confusion while booming nonsense to his listeners with the voice of God: "We've got more polar bears than we've ever had before!" and "I don't believe that humans are creating this, and neither do, apparently, a vast majority of climatologists!"
Inglis pipes in, wanly, with facts, but he's like a third-chair flautist competing against a first-rate guitar shredder. Who's even listening?
Later, addressing Kenner's camera, Inglis tells a truth about the public as despairing as James Randi's. "Many conservatives see action on climate change as really an attack on a way of life," Inglis sighs. "The reason we need the science to be wrong is that otherwise we realize that we need to change. That's a hard pill to swallow."
He's likely right to despair, but I'd quibble with his metaphor. If there's one thing Americans love, it's swallowing pills. That's why it's hard to take issue with Kenner's choice to cut, on occasion, to Swiss's card tricks, to clips from The Twilight Zone, to anything else: Gel-capping is the least that truth-tellers can do.
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