Home Video Hovel – The Revisionaries, by Aaron Pinkston
In its set-up, The Revisionaries literally puts us in the classroom with teachers talking with students about what evolution is and what it isn’t. In terms of offering a baseline in setting up the terms and gist of how evolution is taught in the classroom (something which is important to understand in the controversy of teaching science vs. intelligent design), this approach is particularly effective. This comes in handy when the film shifts to the main narrative focus, which becomes wrapped up in the tiny minutiae and political machinations that dictate what we learn and how we learn.
Don McLeroy, the director of the Texas State Board of Education (now former director), is the film’s main advocate for not teaching evolution and the clear villain. Though he is given a fair opportunity in the film’s dialogue, he’s shown off as a fairly clueless and dangerously obstinate figure. Up against the many professors, scientists and activists, he clearly doesn’t have the educational background to make a decision against what seems to be a mountain of scientific evidence of evolution. The film seems to go out of its way to paint McLeroy as a simple man, a dentist by trade, who chit-chats about evolutionary theory with his unknowing patients with an “aw shucks, I don’t know” rhetoric — at times, I thought I might be watching some sort of spin-off of Richard Linklater’s Bernie. He repeatedly states that he is a “skeptic” who outright disagrees with field experts, but he never really says why he disagrees. In the heat of battle, though, McLeroy is much more of a shark than first perceived — though still probably not as enlightened about the issues as you’d like (his stumbling over trying to define “stasis” is a key moment), he brings a fire that turns him into a borderline bully leading the board.
But, as an elected official, his concern first is his constituency. This brings up an interesting political question, one that The Revisionaries unfortunately doesn’t take on directly — if the public seems to want something that may be educationally insufficient, should that be enough to dictate what is taught? Of course, this idea runs the risk of propaganda and cultural manipulation. Turning to questions like this may have brought a wider and more probing look at the entire issue of teaching intelligent design in high schools and why this is even a debate. Near the middle of the film, it does turn to the political process when McLeroy’s up for election, introducing a Republican candidate who doesn’t necessarily disagree with the religious principles of his opponent, but doesn’t see a clear and honest job being done.
No matter your view on this debate, The Revisionaries makes it obvious just how complicated the issue has become — and there is great value in that knowledge. The right-leaning members of the board consistently and constantly say that they don’t want the Church taught in the classroom. If you believe them (the film clearly doesn’t), it only muddies the debate more. Much of the argument at the Board of Education meetings rides on semantics to the point that it’s hard to understand what is even being argued. Cut with bumbling music, votes over whether the concept of discrimination should be taught or whether “Hussein” should be inserted between the words Barack and Obama, it literally comes off as a circus. At its best, The Revisionaries is a pretty shocking look at how elected officials have complete control on what we are told and how completely crazy that can be. When it tries to be a profile of the people in the story, however, its obvious slant can be pretty hard to take — I have very little in common with Don McLeroy on an ideological level, and even though I can’t say that the film’s view of this character is in any way incorrect, I’m made uneasy by its pretty obvious editorial tricks. I often laughed at the “ridiculous antics” of the right-wing bible thumpers, only to wonder if trying to win this battle in this direction was wholly productive.
Ultimately, this is an issue absolutely worth exploring, and The Revisionaries does create a good base level introduction into the way the debate has been crafted, but is far from a fair-and-balanced discussion. Perhaps The Revisionaries isn’t the type of documentary that should reach for fair-and-balanced. Perhaps the battle over the classroom is too important to consciously give both sides their due when you believe the other side is flat-out wrong. Certainly, The Revisionaries is a film made for a like-sided mind (the pull quote from noted liberal Michael Moore on the DVD cover speaks to this) and I recommend those who strongly believe in the teaching of only intelligent design stay away — the film won’t revise the way you approach the argument, if it ever intended to do so.