Saturday, April 19, 2008

Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

I don't really follow sports, but I think I can recognize good cheerleading when I see it. It is a cheerleader's job to generate enthusiasm and to look gorgeous; Ben Stein's movie, "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed", is definitely good cheerleading -- on both counts.

I went into the theater with the notion that the film would be a religious-right clone of a Michael Moore movie -- a sort of Genesis 911, if you will. This was partly due to the buzz I had picked up (without really paying much attention), and it is certainly true that the film is marketed as a Mondo film. But I was favorably impressed with how well Stein avoided the more glaring excesses inherent in the genre. Despite a few missteps (of which I will speak more in a moment) the tone never becomes shrill or sensationalistic and the intellectual content was high and generally high-minded. The humor, of course, was derisive but not really mean-spirited.

In addition, the production quality was impressive in its own right. Even non-controversial documentaries vary in quality but most of those with a Message tend to fall on the cheesy-but-accurate end of the spectrum; we are expected to overlook the flaws for the greater good of supporting the Cause. "Expelled" isn't like that. This isn't a Ken Burns piece, but it is visually appealing from start to finish. The lighting during the interviews is often dramatic and conveys a sense of the dignity and richness of the scientific ideas being discussed. The score is also appropriate and often haunting. Particularly memorable is one scene near the end where Stein is walking alone through the Smithsonian Institute's dinosaur and cave man exhibits. The combination of lighting, pacing and music combine to aptly illustrate what Thomas Harris, in Silence of the Lambs calls "the cosmic hangover that the Smithsonian leaves."

I'm fairly well versed on the scientific criticisms of Darwinism, and I hang around with people that are usually up for a discussion of the subject, but I am not usually sanguine on the prospect of getting the general public excited about it. And yet, at the end of the show on opening night, the theater I was in burst into applause that can only be described as thunderous. Even more significant, perhaps, were the grunts of recognition I heard throughout the film. These were the kinds of sounds people make when someone has made an unexpectedly good point. Obviously, a large part of the target audience is people who are already engaged with the subject, so some of this enthusiasm was probably not generated so much as awakened by the film. But I would be willing to bet that a significant number of watchers went away with the desire to look further into the subject, which is really the most that you can expect of a theatrical release.

And the good news is that Ben Stein seems to have realized this and tailored his message to that end. On such a large topic, there are many paths he might have pursued, but he focused on discussing the issue of academic free inquiry. That shows both tactical restraint and intellectual honesty. No one is going to believe that a presidential speech-writer and comedian knows more about science than Richard Dawkins, so he doesn't do more than introduce the key points of the counter-Darwinian argument.

In order to really defend the science behind the Intelligent Design movement, one has to dig fairly deeply into some very technical discussion. It is unreasonable to expect that the average movie-goer, fresh to the subject, will come away with any great enthusiasm, to say nothing of understanding, of such a heavy subject after only an hour and a half. But anyone can understand that people ought to be given a fair hearing and that their ideas should be allowed to stand or fall on their own merits. David Horowitz, in The Art of Political War notes that Americans love the notion of fair play and the best way to capture their hearts is to demonstrate that you are the underdog. I have some problems with this methodology when it leads to a cult of victimhood, but there is no denying that it is very effective rhetorically.

Moore Moments
I didn't have many criticisms of the film, but I think it only fair to point out a few places where Stein left himself vulnerable:

1. The opening scene is a 1940s newsreel of the building of the Berlin Wall. This visual metaphor, along with other old footage of early 20th century collectivism and conformity, recurs throughout the film. While it is intended (and largely succeeds) as humor, the comparison is really not that apt. There is a definite injustice and cognitive dissonance when scientists and journalists lose their jobs for defending or, even mentioning, critiques of Darwinism, but it is nowhere near the suffering of those behind the Iron Curtain or under the Nazis.

2. The first 20 minutes or so are filled with interviews of people who claimed to have been dismissed for bucking the system without any direct rebuttal from the administration. This isn't exactly dishonest, but I had the definite sense that I wasn't getting the whole story. The administration officials were given their say later in the film -- and generally did a poor job of defending their actions -- but I would have liked to see more interplay up front between the opposing viewpoints.

3. Near the end, Stein in an interview with Richard Dawkins which can only be characterized as badgering. Both men keep their cool and the conversation is cordial, but Stein repeatedly asks questions that Dawkins has already answered or has already admitted that he doesn't have a good answer for. Stein gives a plausible pretext for his line of questioning, but the general flavor is the sort of gotcha journalism that we on the right have deplored when it is used against us. If this piece is primarily about fairness, it weakens rather than strengthens the argument to resort to such tactics.

Despite these flaws, I came away with a very positive impression of the film as a whole. I am tempted to watch it again, this time taking notes, so that I can get a more detailed understanding of how Stein presented his argument. And really, that says it all: with today's movie prices, how often does that temptation occur?

1 comment:

Tim said...

I agree, despite some flaws the movie is really good - I'm really glad it didn't have too many Moore moments.