Tearing a page out of Michael Moore’s book, conservative gadfly Ben Stein inserts himself into a cultural debate, siding with proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) against avowedly atheistic scientists who insist on the veracity of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. While it’s difficult to gainsay Stein’s nasal cry for academic freedom, his play-dumb personality as host is obfuscating and the overall methodology tendentious. Expelled may prove to be as controversial as the producers hope, but the reactions will be more entertaining and elucidating than the film itself.
The charge: Qualified scientists without a creationist agenda are being fired merely for referencing it, and America’s educational and research establishment suppresses discussion of ID. Based on the handful of cases mentioned and weighing the testimony from both sides, there appears to be some truth to the claim that Darwinism and evolutionary biology are considered gospel and that those who challenge the orthodoxy are dreaded within the scientific community. If Stein and company stuck with trying to document this in a disinterested way, the movie might have succeeded, but Expelled starts with two extreme and potentially insulting analogies to describe the perceived state of affairs. Namely, the situation facing those sympathetic to ID (or who mention it without derision) is comparable to that of dissenters in Nazi Germany or behind the Iron Curtain under post-war communist regimes.
In addition to deploying black-and-white archival footage relevant to those overheated parallels, director Nathan Frankowski makes freewheeling use of short snippets from Planet of The Apes, Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz and Inherit the Wind to illustrate the argument. Khrushchev pounding on a table at the U.N., a guillotine and numerous other, more frivolous clips and visual references pop up. When the movie endeavors to summarize the science, it relies on a made-to-order cartoon—one likening evolutionary mutations to gambling in a casino against hopeless odds. There’s also no serious attempt to define or explain ID.
Stein presents himself as an ignorant, tennis-shoe-clad irritant, posing either loaded or hopelessly naïve questions. He muddles the issue when it suits him and has a frustrating habit of asking an important question and then begging or repeating it. Not that this distinguishes him from many other contemporary documentarians. Michael Moore, to take one, is simply better at artfully packaging his manipulation, making it appear more seamless. By the end, Stein’s main sparring partner Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, can’t hide his exasperation.
The filmmakers are in a bind because, although much time is spent discussing the irreligiosity of those in the Darwinian camp, they don’t want to bring faith into the discussion from the ID side since it’s considered a nonstarter by scientists. This is the crux of the matter, of course, and Expelled sidesteps it. In the spirit of honest, open debate, the movie should make the case for ID without linking it to religion and/or admit to its religious underpinnings and motivations where applicable. No interviewee sympathetic to ID identifies his/her religious affiliation on camera. Stein approaches the topic as a freedom-loving, secular humanist searching for answers. Only toward the end does he reference his ethnic and cultural heritage when exploring a link between eugenics and Darwinian theory during a visit to a Nazi hospital where genetic experiments were conducted. Certainly, the connection is legitimate when criticizing Darwinism and its possible implications. In no way does it justify the movie’s initial equation of ID-resistant scientific consensus with fascism and totalitarianism, however.
Stein’s unhelpful personality, rhetorical lapses and bad attempts at levity aside, the scientific community does sustain a few cosmetic dings. Religion takes a bigger, frontal hit from many of the scientists interviewed. Don’t expect the faith of those who advocate ID on strictly religious grounds to be shaken. By the same token, if they’re honest with themselves, Biblical literalists—indeed anyone who thinks the universe did not come about willy-nilly—won’t find much real succor in Expelled. And it’s doubtful that his targets within the scientific community will consider Stein a worthy inquisitor. In the case of Faith vs. Reason, Yahweh vs. Darwin—as presided over and often outrageously prosecuted by Ben Stein & Associates—neither side wins.
Director: Nathan Frankowski
Screenwriters: Kevin Miller and Ben Stein
Producers: Logan Craft, Walt Ruloff and John Sullivan
Rating: PG for thematic material, some disturbing images and brief smoking
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: April 18