The Academy Award winner unwittingly opened the floodgates when he repopularized the first person documentary. Moore films such as Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911 inspired clones both good—Super Size Me, anything by Nick Broomfield—bad—My Date with Drew—and now ugly. In Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed former game show host Ben Stein turned roving reporter asking the question, “If we allow free speech to disappear in science, where will it end?”
Using a Moore-esque blend of animation, archival footage and interviews he sets out to prove his idea that the scientific community’s unwillingness to accept the role of religion in the creation story is a free speech issue. In his search for the truth, or at least his version of the truth, Stein speaks to many science professionals on both sides of the debate revolving around intelligent design and Darwinism.
He interviews several university professors and researchers who claim to have lost high profile jobs for the “science sin” of mentioning, not even teaching, creationism. Fired by their Darwinist masters many of them now say they are outcasts in the scientific community, unable to find meaningful work because of their beliefs.
The flipside of these poor beleaguered intelligent design proponents are the Darwinists whose inflammatory declarations are deliberately edited and geared to present them as precocious eggheads whose moral compass has gone askew.
“Intelligent design is so boring I can’t even be bothered to think about it anymore,” says one scientist. “Religion is a primitive superstition,” says another. One more compares a belief in God to a comforting pastime, not unlike knitting. These people, if you haven’t figured it out yet, are the film’s villains.
This is a truly strange movie. Modeled on Moore’s left wing documentaries, Expelled takes a sharp turn to the right suggesting that anyone or any institution that that ignores intelligent design is somehow unpatriotic. Wrapping his thesis in good old American jingoistic rhetoric—remember this guy used to write speeches for Nixon—Stein repeatedly compares Darwinist scientists to communists by the suggestion that the only way they can get funding for research is to be good Darwinist “comrades” and even makes the outrageous connection between Darwin’s theory and Nazism. To bolster this argument he heavy handedly layers the film with footage of the Berlin Wall—it’s supposed to represent the rift in the scientific community with ID on one side and the evil communist Darwinians on the other—and images of Stalin.
As for alternative theories regarding the beginning of life as we know it Stein presents two fringe Darwinian propositions. Perhaps, suggests one scientist, life cold have appeared on the backs of crystals, while another mentions Earth having been seeded by aliens. Stein meets both with the kind of skepticism usually reserved for something you’d read in the Weekly World News next to a story about Bat Boy.
Despite its conservative slant Expelled does ask some interesting questions—Does science erode religious belief? Does Darwinism devalue human life? Is the scientific mainstream afraid of other ideas?—and could have worked as a pop propaganda pastiche if it wasn’t so ham-fisted.
Never one to use a feather when a hammer will do, Stein employs a number of hoary old Fleet Street tabloid tricks to try and create drama. For example when he and his crew are kicked out of the Smithsonian for filming without a permit it’s presented as though the Smithsonian is somehow curtailing Stein’s quest for the truth. What he’s doing there in the first place is never made clear and perhaps if a line producer had called first and arranged to show up with a camera they wouldn’t have had to deal with security. In other cases deliberately provocative footage is added to the narrative to subliminally influence the viewer.
Perhaps it isn’t just a co-incidence that the host’s initials are B.S.
Stein is an unlikely emcee. Stone-faced and monotone he doesn’t exactly drip star appeal, but he has some audience goodwill, I guess, from his days as a television host and his beloved movie role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but here he comes across as manipulative and grating. Trained as a lawyer he’s smart enough to only ask questions he knows the answer to, so many of the exchanges in the film seem less like interviews and more like Stein baiting his subjects to provide answers he can use and manipulate to further his theories.
It’s all a bit much really and so over the top it’s hard to take seriously. It’s a hot button topic for sure, but in its own hyperbolic way Expelled would have us believe that teaching Darwinian evolution while ignoring intelligent design is a greater threat to freedom than Osama Bin Laden or any of his Al Qaeda cohorts. I wonder what Michael Moore thinks of the demon he’s unleashed on us all.