Expelled, the new pro-intelligent design documentary directed by Nathan Frankowski and starring Ben Stein, first gained notoriety when one of the film’s subjects, biologist and blogger P.Z. Myers, was, ahem, expelled from a Minneapolis test screening a few weeks ago, while fellow interviewee, Richard Dawkins, was allowed through to watch the film. Stein, a comedian, game show host, and former Nixon speech writer, imports his droll style to the debate over intelligent design in perhaps the most heavy-handed and misleading documentary I’ve seen in some time. I’ll admit that I went into the film already skeptical of Stein’s arguments, but nothing prepared me for some of the unbelievable logical leaps taken by the film. Still, because Expelled (probably wisely) wasn’t screened for critics and because the producers apparently have a distribution strategy of releasing the film first to those of us in flyover country, rather than the urban “elite,” I felt obligated to check it out.
The film begins by focusing on a small group of scientists who were denied tenure at various universities (or endured some other form of public criticism) for expressing a belief in some of the tenets of intelligent design. Ominous music suggests a conspiracy among the scientific community to hold these decent, hard-working, and potentially revolutionary scholars back. However, as the Expelled Exposed website reveals, there is much more to the stories of this group of “expelled” scholars. I don’t want to go into specifics with each scholar, but Stein’s film desperately labors to make these scholars look like rock-and-roll rebels against a scientific establishment that is so orthodox and so stifling that there is absolutely no room for dissent or even debate about any issue that might even be remotely controversial. Of course, it can only do this by ignoring the specific content that is controversial–in this case, what Fox News critic Roger Friedman refers to as the “junk science” of intelligent design. In fact, the film in places tries–absurdly–to position these scientists as latter day Einsteins, ready to introduce the next great paradigm shift in scientific thought. More crucially, the “scientific elite” are seen as stifling free speech, an absurd assertion when science scholarship can by no means be reduced to or equated with the state.
The critique of the theory of evolution would be bad enough on its own, but Expelled is also one of the most transparently manipulative films I’ve ever seen, with Frankowski comparing an utterly homogeneous scientific community to the Communists and the Nazis at various points and referring to scientists who study evolution as “Darwinists,” as if Darwin is just another ideology on par with these political philosophies. One of the film’s structuring elements involves black-and-white footage of the building of the Berlin Wall alongside color stock footage of the major Washington, DC, landmarks in order to position intelligent designers on par with the founding fathers, Lincoln, and conservative hero Ronald Reagan, virtual freedom fighters on the front in the battle against tyranny and totalitarianism. Darwinism becomes or at least logically leads to eugenics, the film seems to argue, and Stein drops a couple of ominous passages from Darwin’s research to reinforce this point, as if all scientists accept Darwin’s theories to the letter. In fact, Expelled crosses a line that few films do in establishing its analogy between evolutionary theory and Hitler’s theories of eugenics by actually entering the concentration camps and showing the ovens where hundreds, if not thousands, of victims were cremated. Such a manipulative use of the Holocaust dead to score relatively cheap political points should not be tolerated.
Expelled culminates with a montage cutting between shots of intelligent design scientists discussing their ideas and footage–now in color–of German citizens taking chisel and hammer in hand to tear down the Berlin Wall, with footage of Reagan’s famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech providing a vocal counterpoint, making transparent–as if we’d missed it before–the argument that intelligent designers are simply free speech radicals who have been oppressed by the scientific community, the state, whatever.
But one thing that jarred me about this final montage was the use of the Killers’ “All These Things That I Have Done” to reinforce the image of the ID crowd as rock-and-roll rebels. I found myself asking: How could the Killers license their music to such a crap documentary? I even considered deleting their CD from my iPod. It turns out that apparently the filmmakers used the Killers’ song and John Lennon’s “Imagine” without getting permission.** I certainly support the idea of Fair Use when it comes to academic uses of intellectual property, and the use of “Imagine,” as absurd as it might have been, bordered on “fair use” (the film sought to equate Lennon’s “imagine…no religion” line with, uh, something like meaninglessness, a lack of purpose, a reason not to kill people), but the use of the Killers was simply to support the film’s emotional climax and plays as if the band endorses Stein’s politics. While Brian Flemming correctly points out that Yoko could likely sue for more money than the film earned at the box office, it’s tempting to see their use of these songs as intentionally provocative, yet another haphazard attempt at ginning up a controversy by pitting underdog filmmakers against yet another institutional power–Yoko’s lawyers. Thus far, the attempts to sell the controversy don’t seem to be working that well. The film finished eighth at the box office this week, despite conservative claims that the film was finding a relatively wide audience, and there were, in fact, a grand total of three people at my late night screening in Fayetteville.*
I’m pretty convinced that Expelled will disappear quickly enough, and in writing this review, I’m torn between advising audiences not to see it–I likely would have skipped it if not for the free movie passes–and following MaryAnn Johanson’s suggestion and recommending that people see it in order to understand the intelligent design arguments. My guess is that the viewpoints expressed here may even be hysterical and extreme for some IDers. It might also be worth watching as an example of some of the sloppiest filmmaking to hit the big screen in a long time. More than anything, it’s rather distressing that with all of the talented documentary filmmakers out there working, this is what gets distributed to the local multiplex. At least nobody here in Fayetteville seemed to be buying it.
* To be fair, Expelled is actually a relative box office success for a documentary, as A.J. points out, grossing over $3 million in its opening weekend, a number that would place it within striking distance of the all-time top 25 for top grossing documentaries. It’s still not a good documentary, though.
** It turns out that the Killers apparently did give permission for the song to be used but under false pretenses. When they saw how the song was used, they sought to have it removed, but it was too late.