Since his first, monotone date with cinematic history in 1986’s Ferris Bueller, Ben Stein has carved a public career out of slight, but reliably charming variations on a single character: himself. Stein has been a supporting player in TV series and movies, a commercial pitchman (remember those Clear Eyes ads?), the host of the late, great Comedy Central quiz show Win Ben Stein’s Money, and, more earnestly, a news pundit on CBS. His wardrobe—always a drab-colored suit, always a pair of canvas sneakers laced up with immaculately white shoestrings—seems the perfect extension of his persona. Bookish, phlegmatic and self-deprecatingly funny, he looks at once like the smartest and least threatening man in the room.
Stein has never concealed his political leanings. A supremely entertaining talk show guest, he frequently describes his tenure as a young speechwriter for Nixon and his straight-ticket Republican voting record. His commentary for CBS has been vaunted by the Religious Right for taking aim at some of the Secular Left’s sacred cows. (In one holiday segment which later became a popular chain email, Stein, who is a practicing Jew, expressed dismay that Christian Nativity displays were being forcibly removed from public property.)
It should come as no surprise, then, that Pat Robertson and company were excited about Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein’s first foray into documentary filmmaking. The movie, which opened in April, argues that there is a systematic effort to snuff out any challenge to the prevailing, evolutionary account of life’s origins. In the media, but most especially in America’s institutions of higher learning, Stein asserts that science has become a one-sided conversation, with Darwinists doing all the talking. He rolls out a group of researchers who, he claims, lost tenure or employment at places like Baylor, George Mason University, and the Smithsonian Institute. These are the film’s “expelled”—scientists who are punished for championing, or merely mentioning the possibility of, a Creator’s hand.
Stein, who promoted the film on Robertson’s 700 Club show, clearly favors the Design theory. But initially at least, he casts the film’s central issue as one of intellectual liberty. The camera captures Stein as he lectures in a darkened university seminar room (shades of Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth), complaining that when it comes to Darwinism, there is no dissent without reprisal. We follow him across the globe, as he tries to find out what’s so “dangerous”—as he puts it in his ever so polite way—about a debate.
There is something a little too tidy about the film’s version of the events surrounding the “expelled” scientists’ firings (we hear very little from their former employers). But if we take their stories—and Stein’s early words—at face value, his project seems like a worthwhile one, regardless of our personal opinions of natural selection. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay that way. What begins as a defense of free speech devolves into a petty, poorly reasoned attack on all things Darwin.
We’re prepared for this shift by a series of interspersed, black and white film clips from Germany, taken during and after the Second World War. In many, we see the Berlin Wall going up. Stein’s voiceover tells us that “Big Science” has erected its own barrier, to keep out any challenge to evolution. And hence, the footage of the Wall. It’s a conceit so self-evidently over the top as to be ridiculous, only it’s not the worst. Stein later uses the World War II scenes to link evolutionists to the Third Reich, suggesting that their views, taken to their logical extreme, give birth to eugenics and the Final Solution.
At this point the film begins to counter facts that it finds unpleasant with answers that are deficient, if not deceitful. Take, for example, an interview with Caroline Crocker, director of the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education. Crocker asserts—accurately—that most Catholics and mainline Protestants long ago managed to reconcile their faith with modern science. Expelled then cuts to a journalist who argues that this reconciliation is nothing more than a way for “liberal Christians” to spite their hated, conservative counterparts.
In the midst of this obfuscation, Ben Stein’s usual egghead charm quickly dries up. It’s a disastrous development, because we are stuck with his bespectacled, faux curiosity for all ninety minutes of the film’s running time. He lets his disdain for evolutionary biology get the better of him; those white shoelaces flap above the pavement as he wanders off into agitprop. Stein, a former Yale Law School valedictorian, should know better, and one wonders how this documentary might have turned out differently. As it is, a better name for Expelled would be Exhausted. It draws the same old, tired lines in the sand, and thumbs its nose at its opponents without scoring any new points. It does nothing to normalize relations between two worldviews that are already at bitter odds— unnecessarily, most of us might add.
Stein’s film “culminates” with a flight to England, and the promise of some decisive showdown with the high priest of atheistic Darwinism himself, Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion). The two shake hands, face each other across a table, and proceed to quibble inanely over the percentage of likelihood that God doesn’t exist. (“Ninety-nine?” “Ninety-eight?” “Forty-something?”)
What a climax. I lay the blame squarely on Michael Moore. Sure, Stein deserves some blame for this blunder of a movie, as well as stern orders to stick to his many fine day jobs. But in the end, he’s merely borrowing a trick from Moore’s playbook. Rather than a sober exchange of ideas, or even some knock-down, drag-out fight (which would be satisfying in its own way), the Bowling for Columbine School of Documentary Filmmaking requires that you confront your adversaries in the most irritating, unconstructive manner imaginable, pestering them like mosquitoes, and drawing just as little blood.