I love documentaries. They lack the emotional power and financial clout of a feature film, but they can communicate ideas with a clarity that dramatic representations cannot. Documentaries can allow experts and witnesses to speak to the audience in their own words, and while all films will be shaped by the biases of their creators, will show a precise and clear premise and conclusion if made well.
Ben Stein’s “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” is an excellent example of this. I saw it yesterday, and enjoyed it. It’s not perfect, but takes on such a complex and controversial subject so gamely and covers so many topics in such a short amount of time that I think some of its more minor shortcomings may be overlooked.
Its main strengths, however, are noteworthy – particularly the presentation style of Ben Stein. I like Ben Stein. I’ve enjoyed his films and books, quoted The View From Sunset Boulevard in my book, and I think he did an excellent job as the host of “Expelled.” He’s sharp enough to hold his own when interviewing top scientists, but humble enough to come across as sincerely looking for answers; funny enough to make 90 minutes of arguing experts actually enjoyable, but still able to personally convey the deep tragedy of Nazi genocide.
The film has been called everything from “ a hard-core, fundamentalist bit of right-wing propaganda” to “bizarre and hysterical.” Critics appear to have almost universally decided that its sinister underhanded goal must be to put that scary old Biblical Creation back in schools and destroy the wonderful open-minded academic freedom that evolutionary advocates currently enjoy.
This is ironic, since the film’s purpose is to demonstrate that “big science” discriminates against all ideas contrary to the neo-Darwinian party line, assuming totalitarian controls over what is discussed, published, and funded, quashing all dissenting views. Contrary to mainstream reviews, creation is barely discussed in “Expelled,” and intelligent design is only suggested as a potential alternative.
This is one area in which I think the film could have been better. While the often-misconstrued term “evolution” is very carefully and concisely defined by David Berlinski, and several interviewees describe what they think “intelligent design” should mean, the filmmakers should have more clearly defined their terms. For that matter, so should the critics who cry out against the doctrine of “creation” without specifying which origin story they disagree with.
Also missing was an exploration of how worldviews can affect the interpretation of empirical data. While Dr. John Lennox of Oxford University made a brilliant observation on the unavoidability of presuppositions in the argument, there just wasn’t time to address it or even flesh it out. This is disappointing to me, since it sits at the very heart of the evolutionary debate and is an area of personal interest, like the information theory briefly mentioned by Maciej Giertych, population geneticist for the EU.
Another thing than bugged me (while I’m on the subject) was the camera work. It’s well done, but borrows a little too heavily from the fast-action “24” style of constant reframing for my taste. That said, the interviews are well covered, and the location photography throughout Europe and America is excellent. When Stein visits French, German, and English locations, the filmmakers manage to convey a sense of chronological travel along the film’s journey, rather than just cut from expert to expert or show the destinations dotted on a map.
Another editing technique that will invite plenty of comment is the constant use of vintage film clips from old movies and newsreels. It’s a bit gimmicky, owes some of its execution to Michael Moore’s projects, and yet works pretty well. With the scientists predominantly talking about abstract concepts and unfilmable (or imaginary) events, stock footage can provide the only b-roll, and the humorous clips seem more cleverly chosen than Moore’s ham-handed juxtapositions.
So… why did the New York Times dub it “an unprincipled propaganda piece that insults believers and nonbelievers alike?” Perhaps the negative reviews are a confirmation of the film’s main premise – that politically-incorrect ideas will be stamped out by mainstream institutions. Most of the complaints, however, are superficial straw men, ad hominem assaults on Stein’s sanity, or just plain lies.
Richard Dawkins and others have protested their portrayal in the film, explaining that they were tricked into providing the interviews for a film with a working title of “Crossroads,” never imagining that they were set to appear in a film with such a covert creationist agenda. However, both of Dawkins’ interviews, which get a considerable amount of screen time, revolve around intelligent design, so it couldn’t have been that covert.
Another ubiquitous angle in the criticism references the fact that Stein links Hitler to Darwinism. Reviewers either laugh smugly that a Jew could be dense enough not to know that anti-Semitism predates evolution, or tremble with rage that someone would dare suggest that kindly old Charles Darwin, father of science, was actually producing genocidal maniacs.
The Baltimore Sun called this “the most spurious and risible section” of the film, and Arthur Caplan inexplicably labeled Stein’s assertions “a very repugnant form of Holocaust denial.” This is unfair, since Stein says nothing of the sort.
In fact, only his interviewees make this connection, not insisting that Darwinism inevitably leads to genocide, but that Nazism’s genetic cleansing program could not have existed without Darwin’s concepts of natural selection. Those making this claim in the film include David Berlinski, Richard Weikart, and the curator of the Hadamar Clinic, a German hospital where almost 15,000 handicapped Aryans were euthenized for being “useless eaters.”
Coincidentally, yesterday was Adolf Hitler’s birthday. This may have colored my thinking a bit as I pondered the film that night, but it seems that this aspect of evolutionary theory, Darwinian ideas taken to their conclusions and put into practice, is the most interesting. Without agreeing on the presuppositions we use to analyze scientific data, there will be no consensus on this debate.
Modern scientists can’t agree on where physics stop and metaphysics begin, let alone whether a living cell’s unfathomable complexity reveals the unlimited power of a designer or the unlimited power of chance.
The actions of Nazi Germany, however, like Margaret Sanger and Thomas Malthus’s influences in the horrific eugenics movement, are a matter of cold, clear historic record. The fact that most opponents of Ben Stein and “Expelled” choose to single out the most bulletproof of his points for scorn and ridicule is telling.
For a documentary, a theatrical run of over 1000 screens is very large, and the weekend gross was almost $3.2 million, placing it in the top ten. More importantly, it’s per-screen average was almost $3,000 – an excellent start for a non-fiction film. If it can sustain numbers like these, it will be very hard to ignore.