The Human Experiment


Not recommended viewing for hypochondriacs or proponents of unbiased documentaries, Dana Nachman and Don Hardy’s The Human Experiment is an alarming, sometimes alarmist examination of the chemicals that pervade our daily lives. Sean Penn, who executive-produced and also serves as narrator, informs us of the dangers in an authoritative tone. There’s asbestos and tobacco, of course, but the potentially carcinogenic flame-retardant chemicals in our couches are especially worrisome. The filmmakers make a clever argument early on, positing that nearly all activities we partake in amount to calculated risks, from drinking and smoking to simply driving a car; their righteous outrage comes from fat cats lining their pockets with the profits of untested chemicals, which takes away our own agency, thereby making us unwitting participants in a much more dangerous game. There’s truth in that critique, as the interviewees living with cancer, infertility, and other afflictions can attest. The problem with The Human Experiment as an actual film and not just an anti-chemical treatise is that, though these people and the troubling statistics they cite are on the level, we’re too rarely afforded the opportunity to reach our own conclusions based on them. In this way Nachman and Hardy’s work is very much of a piece with a number of other recent activist docs, namely Robert Kenner’s Merchants of Doubt, which likewise blunted the effect of its legitimate points with a heavy-handed approach.