Excelled: A Review of Ben Stein's Expelled by Gord Wilson

Like many, I trundled off to see Ben Stein's film, Expelled, on its opening weekend without high expectations. Maybe from a sense of duty, since I get the e-letter of the Discovery Institute, whose name is synonymous with "Intelligent Design" and all the brou ha ha surrounding it. But also out of curiosity. I very much like Ben Stein as an actor, but I really mean as a personality. Think how great Win Ben Stein's Money could have been if it hadn't been run on cruder-than-thou Comedy Central, where the rating M for "Mature" could be replaced with I for "Immature", and with Ben's producer being the ever- randy Jimmy Kimmel, host of such highbrow viewing fare as The Man Show. Stein was also the dour teacher in the one-joke film, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", in which Matthew Broderick played the same character as in the far more inventive Ladyhawke, not to mention his forays in Biloxi Blues, based on Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, or the endlessly rehashed The Producers: the play that's a movie that's a play that's another movie. Or the same character Stein played in a TV ad for eye drops. Would he drone "Bueller, Bueller, Bueller" throughout the documentary? We settled into our seats to find out.

Right out of the box, I was engaged. As my friend, Paul, in the next seat, said afterwards, "Just the opening credits were better than most recent movies". After that the film never lagged, far exceeding my expectations. It's one of the most creative bits of filmmaking I've seen in a long time, combining retro footage and historical archive material, animation, interviews, commentary, on-location shooting in Paris, London, and Berlin, with the ever quirky Stein, who seems to embody as nobody else, the verve and vigor that used to characterize news anchormen and gumshoe detectives in noir films. Not to mention a deadpan delivery that would make Stein the hit of every overcranked rave or trying too hard movie (the curse of most recent, overwritten films, from Starship Troopers to Transformers) if only by contrast.

This film doesn't try too hard, which is surprising, given its arcane subject. Instead it settles in and kicks back. There's no overkill of "THIS IS A FILM ; LOOK HOW BIG THE BUDGET WAS; CHECK OUT OUR DAZZLING SPECIAL EFFECTS" as in a bombastic Michael Moore movie or an Oliver Stone "non-fiction" story. All of the hard work instead seamlessly flows out of the screen, hidden behind the scrim, as in a P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves novel. Stein trades the megaphone in the ads for a microphone in the movie (I wanted to see him in sneakers with a megaphone, but one will have to be content with the posters). Just the rock soundtrack alone is so well- selected it could be a best-selling CD (and I hope it's released as one). You don't have to have any interest or background in the subject to enjoy this film. That said, what about the subject?

The subject is Intelligent Design, whatever that is. Right? That's what some reviewers would have you think, but no, not really. Then it's about the fight about evolution being taught in the classroom, a postmodern rehash of the Scopes Trial memorialized in the film, "Inherit the Wind"? Well, not really again. It's more about the fight to teach anything but a certain view of evolution in the classroom. Well, not even teach it. Just mention it. Or even mention that a certain view of evolution is a theory, not a fact, slippery as those words are. Or to point out some holes or missing links in it. To explain it much deeper than that would take a whole movie.

Here's one now. Non-fiction movies are made for people who don't read. What I mean is they're made for for people who would rather learn things from movies than books. Hence, the so- called "based on fact" films, the cinematic version of "historical fiction". Since there are only two book and film categories, "fiction" and "non-fiction", documentaries tend to claim the second title implicitly. But "non'fiction" doesn't mean "true", but simply "not actually known or intended to be completely a made-up story". Similarly, "fiction" doesn't mean "false", which is why novels have a disclaimer in the front saying no one in the book is really someone in real life, although all authors draw from real life for characters and plot lines in a novel.

One reason I don't  generally like documentaries is their ulterior motives seem so obvious, their politics so barely hidden, and unlike essays, the entire thrust is to pursuade. I'm sure these same arguments will be used against Expelled, and to some degree they apply, but not, I would say, to the degree of a Michael Moore movie, which seems to consist of two hours of axe grinding. A great many documentaries are based on flimsy evidence or speculative theories, and therefore make better fiction: think, The DaVinci Code. A show like UFO Hunters on History Channel almost never starts with the end result and works backwards; the show instead is about the process or attempt to follow some bit of evidence or test out a theory. Therefore, shows like this start with, "Is Noah's Ark buried here? We set out to find out" and end with "Is this the resting place of Noah's Ark? We may never know".  For "Noah's Ark" you can substitute "Holy Grail" "UFO" "Loch Ness Monster" or various other mysterious objects.

Stein and company brilliantly utilize this "you are there" style, but for a different reason. In both cases, it involves the viewer in the chase or the hunt, as it were, but it's also simply engrossing to follow Stein's treks, and hear him engage his subjects. Along the way, he interviews a host of personages including Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett, a leading neo-Darwinist professor, physicist John Polkinhorne, who is also an Anglican priest, David Berlinski, author of A Tour of the Calculus, William Dembski, an articulate proponent of Intelligent Design, and numerous others. I very much liked putting a face to the authors of books I'd read, and others I'd only heard snippets about.

So what about Intelligent Design? What is it? What's the point? It's simply the view that the scientific evidence lends credence to the idea that there is some intelligence or Divine Creator behind things. But the movie isn't really about that. Most viewers likely assume that given the great number of scientists of all stripes and in all fields who have seen a divine hand behind creation, that scientists and professors are free to point this out and go on untrammelled. But the contemporary academic establishment, in Stein's view, is ruled by "Big Science" whose major figures, such as Dawkins and Dennett, promulgate the "New Atheism". Stein marshalls substantial evidence that those who think differently, or come to other conclusions, have been, and are being, expelled. There are earlier cases, of course, not mentioned in the film, for instance of the prolific author refused a column in Scientific American magazine for failing to heed their breed of orthodoxy. One could also note that Martin Gardner, the witty penman of that magazine's "Mathematical Games" column for many years, is himself a theist.

At last we've gotten to the film's title. I warned you it would be a wild ride. The film, I want to say, exists apart from the viewpoints expressed, the way that Bill Clinton could, I suppose, play saxaphone on MTV while campaigning as president. For Stein, however, the issues at stake are rather serious. He can point decades back to the consequences of "social Darwinism", the eugenics program carried out by the Third Reich. He correctly notes that Margaret Sanger started Planned Parenthood to limit the number of Blacks, Jews, and Irish Catholics, as undesireable races and classes, and that she journeyed to Nazi Germany and gave her stamp of approval to their eugenics program, which eventually climaxed in the elimination of Jews and others as the "Final Solution".

Eugenics, being obviously racist, is these days a dirty word. Planned Parenthood has done its best to bury its roots. Big Science, to use Stein's term, is doing its best to promote amnesia, hoping that in the ensuing smokescreen no one will remember that looking backwards, the early scientists, from Descartes to Pascal, Pasteur to Newton, Einstein to Eddington, all found evidence of intelligence and design. Looking forward, electron microscopes, radio telescopes, cloud chambers, and other precise instruments have revealed a world that is more complex, not less. In the present, it's clear that science thrives when a diversity of views are entertained and respected, as Stein so engagingly shows, rather than when dissenting voices are expelled.  

Read an Interview with Expelled  writer Kevin Miller

Read a review of The Incorrigible David Berlinski.

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