Ben Stein (right) looks at a statue of Charles Darwin in "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed." (Rocky Mountain Pictures)
By Ethan Gilsdorf
Boston Globe Correspondent
April 19, 2008
In this fractious presidential election season, it can be hard to blind yourself to the sniping and focus on the issues. Likewise, when watching a documentary like "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" about a polarizing subject such as intelligent design, separating facts from passions can be a chore.
"Expelled" purports to impartially investigate the slugfest between proponents of Darwinism and creationism, but the production has been marked by controversy. Prominent scientists Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers have claimed the filmmakers approached them under false pretenses. Screenings for the press were all but nonexistent. Marketing was done "The Passion of the Christ"-style, preaching to the choir.
In a sense, "Expelled" demonstrates some of the struggle between proponents of evolution and religion. The film gives ample screen time to scientists of faith who have tried to inject intelligent design theories into the classroom or their research and claim to have been expelled from academia. For its part, expelledexposed.com, a website by the National Center for Science Education, provides alternate explanations for their dismissals, and other objections to the film.
But the brash methods of director Nathan Frankowski ("After . . .", TV miniseries "The Pathway to 9/11"), who has assembled a frenetic, chest-beating film worthy of the tabloids, undercut the argument "Expelled" attempts to make.
Faux pas number one: Interviewer Ben Stein poses questions to skeptics and believers alike, purporting to be a naive crusader bent on getting at the truth. But the former Nixon speechwriter, actor ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off") and TV host ("Win Ben Stein's Money") lets on he's already made up his mind. Second, the college lecture hall scenes where Stein speaks to a rapt audience about dangers to intellectual freedom, which bookend the film, were staged. Mathis admitted the company paid extras to play audience members, but did not see how that ploy might damage the film's credibility.
Worse, with a ram-down-your throat style about as subtle as an excavator tearing through a natural history museum, "Expelled" routinely intercuts the interviews with non sequitur black-and-white clips from campy movies and newsreels - guillotines falling, armies at war, cowboy shoot-outs, concentration camp victims, the Berlin Wall - that would make pioneering film montagist Sergei Eisenstein cringe. John Lennon's song "Imagine" is used to evoke a godless wasteland. Darwinism is equated with Nazism. Through it all, anxiety-inducing background music imposes a false sense of drama.
These tactics are not only misleading, they're insulting and manipulative. Shove a camera in some scientists' faces or light them poorly and of course they'll appear shady. Try to bring a film crew to the Smithsonian and of course security will toss you out.
Such a sensitive subject as this debate deserves a calm and measured treatment. Besides, religion has mucked with scientific principles for millennia. "On the Origin of Species" has only held sway since 1859. Ben Stein et al., all we are saying is, give Darwin a chance, for God's sake.