Ben Stein is mostly known as the guy who said “Bueller? Bueller?” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and also for hosting a game show on Comedy Central in the late 1990’s. He’s lesser known in popular culture as an attorney and writer who once worked drafting speeches for the Nixon Administration and now writes articles and editorials espousing a general conservative philosophy. None of these activities would seem to qualify him to make a documentary about the debate between evolution and what is referred to as “intelligent design,” and Stein hasn’t put together a documentary so much as a propaganda film.
The documentary ranks are, of course, full of propaganda films lately. An Inconvenient Truth and Sicko have paved the way for Stein’s foray into using the power of film to push a political agenda and he milks it for all it’s worth. Stein’s particular hobby horse is the lockout from academic discussion of those who believe that life may have been created by an intelligent being rather than being the result of lightning hitting mud. As the on camera protagonist and co-writer, Stein interviews academics who have been, at least according to themselves, fired from places like The Smithsonian or Iowa State University because they supported the idea of talking about intelligent design in their classroom, magazine, or website.
Although Stein never does a great job of showing that the academics were fired for these reasons and not poor performance and he shows only four or five rather than the hundreds or thousands you might expect to see, he then moves onto a more general discussion of evolution and intelligent design and the long standing feud between science and religion. In every discussion, Stein and director Nathan Frankowski stack the deck, always making the intelligent design proponents seem rational and reasonable while the evolution supporters seem to have wild beards, crazy eyes, and crackpot theories like life started on the backs of crystals. Several of the evolutionists, including Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, claim they were misled in the interviews or were quoted out of context. Welcome to the Michael Moore school of documentary filmmaking!
That’s not to say it’s ineffective propaganda. Every time an evolutionist calls the believers of intelligent design stupid or crazy (or both), Stein shows an interview with a fairly lengthy stream of guys who are clearly neither. The credentials of some of the intelligent design crowd are, if not faked, not unimpressive. He also frames a somewhat small debate in that he just argues that the idea of intelligent design should be allowed to be mentioned in the discussion of how life began. This is America, isn’t it? Stein uses the principles of America and freedom to argue that just talking about the issue goes to what is foundation in our country. Again, he’s a propagandist basically saying you are un-American and against free speech if you don’t let intelligent design to the table.
Stein presents himself in the movie as someone who is looking to give both sides an even shake, but his supposed skepticism at the claims of the intelligent design supporters wouldn’t look real to even his most ardent supporter. He uses cheesy 50’s movies and stock footage of war to counterpoint what is being said. Some of it is pretty funny and the visual additions save the movie from being a total academic borefest. There are real limits, however, to how entertaining propaganda can be, especially to someone who is not in the choir you are preaching to.
In the end, your general beliefs about evolution and intelligent design/creationism, about science and religion, will drive your reaction to this particular piece of propaganda. Those who think religion is for the weak and crazy will see this as a manipulative set of half-truths. Those who believe that life didn’t just come from non-life and there must be something out there are going to enjoy the movie a little more. It’s not unentertaining or uninteresting, but it isn’t something that will move anyone off their predetermined mark.