A review requested by M.C., with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There once was a time when political commentator Ben Stein was... not cool. He was always a bit of a droning blowhard. But he was the droning blowhard you rooted for. He was that square, smug relative who had such a good sense of humor about himself that you still looked forward to catching up with him at all the parties. Obviously, this is mostly the fault of his timeless cameo in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which suggests a man who secretly knows that he's puffed up and wants to make fun of himself and people like him; then again, nobody watching Ferris Bueller really notices in the moment that writer-director John Hughes was a pretty square conservative himself. Regardless, for almost twenty years, Stein's appearances in movies and TV shows, including the batty quiz show Win Ben Stein's Money, suggested a guy who had his political beliefs, but didn't take them at all seriously - he was the movement conservative for people who despised conservatism.

I don't really know when the worm turned; maybe with the 2004 book he co-authored Phil DeMuth, Can America Survive? The Rage of the Left, the Truth, and What to Do About It, part of that insanely fucking weird Bush-era genre of right-wing texts, written during the American right-wing's most unassailable position of strength since the fall of the Berlin Wall, screeching about how the country was about to be devoured whole by shady liberals. Certainly, whatever goodwill he had left among what we then called the "reality-based community" was stomped out with the 2008 release of the documentary... good Lord, no, I can't do that to the word "documentary". Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is a straight-up screed, ideological propaganda so patronising that it makes God's Not Dead seem evenhanded.

The film's subject is intelligent design - is that still around? It was omnipresent back in, like, 2004-2007 in the American political scene, but it seems from my admittedly detached perspecgive like it simply evaporated. I'd like to suppose it was the righteous paddling that Expelled got upon its release, but my gut says it went to ground along with the rest of the Religious Right around the time that the Tea Party ascended as the dominant ultra-right wing of U.S. conservatism. Anyway, intelligent design: the notion that something akin to evolution happens, I mean, you can see it happening, and we wouldn't have things like antibiotics and seedless watermelon if it didn't happen, but it absolutely doesn't happen the way Charles Darwin supposed it did. It's designed. Intelligently. Dunno by who. Maybe God, who knows? Somebody intelligent, though. As though anybody who is a human being and thus has a human being's spinal column, digestive system, and genitalia* could possibly believe in good faith that we were designed by an intelligent creator. A flop-sweaty transmission system for returning a watered-down and thus pathetic version of Creationism to science classrooms, ID actually made it into quite a few curricula if I recall correctly, though it's been pretty thoroughly slapped down by the courts every time they've had a chance to do so.

(By the way, a pet peeve on terminology: "theory of evolution" doesn't mean, "I theorise that evolution happens, because I, Charles Darwin, want to stand athwart God's corpse"; it means, "as anybody can tell, evolution obviously does happen, here is my, Charles Darwin's, theory as to how that process takes place". And when biologists refer to holes in Darwin's theory, they don't mean places where evolution seems to "not work" - they mean that there are certain mechanisms that he posits that probably don't function quite the way he had in mind. Now back to the review).

Expelled is the story of the ID scientists who simply cannot fathom why members of the academy are so hostile to reasonable scientists who are just doing science - just asking questions to see where it all goes. Stein is our snarky host and interviewer, who claims at the start of the script he and Kevin Miller wrote to give the thing a narrative backbone, that he was just curious about what the whole intelligent design controversy was, so the film takes the shape of an investigation. Part one: so what is ID? Part two: so why is it threatening to all those Darwin-worshiping biologists like Richard *feh* Dawkins and PZ *bah* Myers? Part three: how can we stop Darwinism before it plunges us into the Second Holocaust, with the American science academy in the role of the Nazis? I guess that last one deserved a spoiler alert, in case you had plans to watch the eight-year-old propaganda documentary.

Stylistically, then Expelled follows to a "T" the model of the infamous Michael Moore Film, in which our host feigns brutally over-the-top ignorance towards things he's already made up his mind about, all the better to ask leading questions of his almost invariably sympathetic subjects. Absent all its other failings, Expelled is terrible at this. There's no aspect of Moore's filmography I find more grating than his faux-naรฏve astonishment at learning that the Bush family had attachments to the Saudis! or Canadians have a form of socialised health care! on camera. But he's at least got a born huckster's commitment to his material, and as director, he puts some thought into the shape of his arguments. Stein, Miller, and director Nathan Frankowski luck into something more or less resembling a structure, since they're basically thieving everything they can from Bowling for Columbine, right down to the cartoon interlude, but that's just about the only thing Expelled gets right - it's not just propaganda for a cause that I hate with all the passionate hate I could muster for anything, it's badly-made propaganda, and that just makes it depressing. Enraging, but depressing. Ragepression? Anyway.

More than anything, it's Stein. Blessed with the gag-selling rhythms of a solid comic character actor and the voice of a supercilious asshole, it's really hard to believe that he takes this seriously. Fairly early, he's on a mission to find the headquarters of the Discovery Institute, the think tank primarily responsible for promoting intelligent design, and he keeps being baffled that nobody who knows where it is, and is dumbfounded by how small a space it occupies in its office building. I know, because I watched the goddamn thing, that he's trying to make a point at how unassuming and modest this great liberal bogeyman is, but the way Stein delivers his lines, it sounds like he's mercilessly poking fun at it for being dumpy and insignificant.

Apply that same feeling to just about every interview subject that Stein encounters for the first hour, and you have in a nutshell the baffling experience of Expelled, a film which appears to hold its subject matter in open contempt. Hooray for propaganda. Meanwhile, the Mooreisms are pulled out with painful artlessness: pop music ironically attached to stock footage, as when Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" accompanies footage of guards on the Berlin Wall, because science is a Communist dictatorship. Or the time the filmmakers grab some footage of Edward R. Murrow, one of broadcast journalism's most notable flaming liberals, to serve as their mouthpiece (creative editing gets used a lot to make people seem to be saying the exact opposite of what they believe: Frankowski has the enormous balls to cut together an interview with Richard Dawkins - Richard fucking "The God Delusion" Dawkins - to make it seem like he's conspiratorially confiding in Stein as the only man wise enough to hear the truth about the atheist cabal to destroy Christianity through science. Dawkins, like every other celebrity atheist and/or A-list biological scientist who appears onscreen, was straight-up lied to about what movie he was being interviewed for, BTW).

It's very sordid, of course - these advocacy docs are always at least somewhat sordid, even at their most honest, and no matter how much you agree with them - but rendered helplessly incapable of doing any damage (or being any help, if that's the way you roll) through the generally feeble filmmaking. There's a montage set to the Johnny Cash cover of "Personal Jesus" that lasts for minutes of screentime, during which we see Stein in profile a lot, while no words are said and no arguments are made; sometimes (often) lines are clipped off on the last half-syllable by over-zealous sound editors. And of course there's always Ben Stein's dry sense of humor making it impossible to believe that he credits any of his pseudoscientists, or their very earnestly-mouthed theories. I will not do the film the honor of poking at its arguments in favor of ID, which are anyway trivially easy to deflect; it is an unworthy debate partner.

But as I mentioned, we eventually come to the point, foreshadowed by Stein's voiceover turning grim and slow. Darwin's theory of evolution, you see, inherently leads to nihilism. You can't have morality or free willโ€  if we came from a pool of warm sludge, of course, and even though Darwin explicitly and pointedly refused to identify a starting point for life on Earth, Stein has his number - it's not satisfying if a theory of evolution doesn't include a theory of life origins. And not satisfying is the most important thing. So after annoying scientists by pestering them to answer a question that can't be answered till we build a time machine, Stein moves on to the net effect of all that wicked nihilism: you become Adolf Hitler.

Oh, it's fucking adorable how the film tries to bury it: not all Darwinists become Nazis, obviously, so Expelled has to pull some punches. But you can tell how badly they want to pretend that they all do: like every man and woman who thinks that for the most part, Darwin got it right is really just waiting for the proper moment to spring into action and turn good Christian America into an Nazi-atheist hellhole, like Hydra taking over S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This is, for one thing, just dumb: the demented pagan mysticism cross-bred with a warped form of primitive Catholicism that Hitler practiced and his cronies tolerated was surely not atheistic, whatever it was (if you want a murderous atheist dictator, Stalin is, like, right there - but then Ben Stein couldn't cynically cash in on his Judaism). It's also uncharitable: connecting Darwin with Hitler, a rhetorical move that even the film concedes is "difficult", requires a stunningly dishonest reading of a passage from The Descent of Man that cuts off right between Darwin's "civilisation allows us to keep undesirable traits in the human gene pool" and the immediately subsequent "it is wonderful that we developed the traits of sympathy and goodness that allow us to thus take care of one another".

Mostly, it's just motherfucking sordid, to watch Stein solemnly plod around the surgical chambers where Nazi doctors performed unspeakable crimes against humanity, harassing his poor guide who seems to have no clue what he's gunning for when he asks her to psychoanalyse long-dead Nazis, and then to take his wretched little roadshow right into Dachau. All so he can jump right over to, "and of course, Planned Parenthood is just as bad, because like Darwin and Nazism, it celebrates eugenics". One can laugh at the film's hokey attempt to build a case for intelligent design, and muscle through its bad faith attempt to prove that only atheists believe in evolution, and a believe in evolution turns people into atheists (going so far as to accuse Christians who think that ID is horseshit - conservative Christians, even - are actually heretics; if nothing else, that's a hell of an argument for a Conservative Jew to say out loud). But at the point where Expelled starts exploiting the Holocaust to score cheap shots against Dawkins, there's no laughter left, on pure, unbridled disgust. I've seen more than my share of right-wing propaganda films, and plenty of them offend my sense of decency, but this is by far the most repulsive.




*I no longer remember the first place I heard the old "who would run a sewer pipe through a playground" gag, but it ain't wrong.




โ€ For the record, I'm not actually sure I do put much stock in free will as such, but that's not really here nor there - plenty of atheists, even atheist biologists, certainly disagree with me.