Film Review: Greedy Lying Bastards

This promising but half-baked documentary about weasely climate-change denialists and their fossil-fuel industry backers has all the ammunition at hand but never goes for the kill.

It’s a sad point but likely true: If Craig Scott Rosebraugh’s documentary about the big lies over climate change had been argued from the opposite viewpoint—that is, attacking environmental leaders—it likely would have found a small but impassioned and nicely remunerative audience. As he ably shows, there are many “charlatans” and deniers who make a decent living confusing the issue of climate change, with surprisingly receptive audiences. One of the stranger moments in Greedy Lying Bastards is footage of Tim Philips, president of the oil-industry-funded lobbying group Americans for Prosperity and seemingly just another bland Beltway spokesman in a suit, being greeted at a speaking engagement like a reanimated Elvis. No such excitement will be waiting for Rosebraugh’s film, an earnest but wholly unimpressive bit of advocacy cinema which fails to tap into the dark seam of anger that its title implies.

Greedy Lying Bastards is ostensibly an exposé of the “astroturf” industry that lives in the shadow of the fossil-fuel business and does its bidding in the corridors of power and on the world’s TV screens and op-ed pages. But the banner headlines here are yesterday’s news. Rosebraugh argues that groups like the previously mentioned Americans for Prosperity and the Heartland Institute are propaganda fronts for firms like Exxon-Mobil and the polluting companies run by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. These groups then send out their henchmen to obfuscate the issue of climate change, essentially creating a debate (Is climate change real, and even so, is it manmade?) where the scientific community has none (yes and yes). As one of Rosebraugh’s interviewees notes, it’s as proven a strategy as repeating a falsehood (like one particularly bonkers assertion that volcanoes produce more CO2 than human industry) often enough that it starts to be taken as true. In the film’s most striking moments, a clear line is drawn from the fossil-fuel industry’s campaign of junk science and outright lies to battles waged years before by Big Tobacco, which also wanted to protect its product from any regulation or bad associations.

It’s not precisely a scoop. Scores of journalists, mainstream and ideological, have been covering this beat for years and exposing the webs of connections between corporate cutouts and their minions who work the halls of Congress. Rosebraugh rehashes much of this perfectly well. His film is hampered, though, by a few things right from the start. First is a bungled attempt to tie his polemic to real-world effects of climate change. Dramatic footage of forest fires in Colorado and coastal erosion in Alaska is crudely intercut with his finger-pointing at the denialists. Second is the director’s overwrought and self-satisfied narration. The film’s most critical flaw, though, is its failure to close the circle on its argument. Why has it been so easy for denialists to flout decades of evidence and thousands of committed scientists? The ones who show up here, either in person like the bug-eyed and slightly terrifying Christopher Monckton, or in archival footage like the conspiracy theorist and oil-industry sock puppet Senator James Inhofe, seem barely able to handle a high-school debate.

The logical conclusion of Rosebraugh’s film is that many people want to be lied to about certain things. It’s logical; who wouldn’t rather think that an environmental catastrophe isn’t upon us? Instead of going deeper, however, Rosebraugh sticks to the well-trammeled surface accusations, calling for viewers to reach out to their representatives and boycott Exxon-Mobil and Koch Industries products. It’s a fizzle of an ending for what could have been an explosive film.