Directed by: Nathan Frankowski
Premise: A documentary film, hosted by Ben Stein, following the controversy over suppression of academic freedom and scientific discourse on intelligent design.
What Works: Expelled is a documentary in the style of Michael Moore’s work, which is to say it is an op-ed piece The film is ostensibly about the suppression of academic freedom, but it spends most of its time advocating intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinian theories of evolution. The picture is well shot and uses news and stock footage effectively, namely footage of the Berlin Wall which the film employs as a metaphor for the divide between religion and science. The ethical angle of the film is its most engaging component and some sequences are very moving, particularly a scene where Ben Stein visits the remains of a Nazi death camp where the retarded and otherwise disabled were put to death for being supposedly inferior.
What Doesn’t: Expelled discards its exploration of censorship in academia very quickly, taking all of the censored professors at their word and does not bother to ask why censorship like this might take place or if it even did in the first place. The film’s main thrust, to legitimatize the discussion of intelligent design, comes up short. Although the film points out shortcomings in Darwinian theory, these shortcomings do not automatically prove the legitimacy of an alternative argument and the film never actually makes the case for intelligent design as a scientific theory. As Stein states early on in the picture, bad science, like the view that the world is flat, should not be taught in classrooms and the middle portion of the film attempts to untangle intelligent design from religious traditions and argue that it ought to be evaluated by the scientific method. But Expelled never does that and then undercuts itself in the final third of the film as it shifts gears to try and address the moral and ethical implications of Darwinist theory. The film gets really confused about how it feels about religion, as it takes on figures like Richard Dawkins, an avowed atheist and author of The God Delusion, for attacking religion and disparaging the affiliation of religious views with contemporary science. At the same time, Expelled describes Darwinists in religious terms, using it as pejorative. On top of that, the film juxtaposes evolutionist science with stock footage of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. This hyperbole makes it very difficult to take the film seriously. In the end, Expelled conflates intelligent design and religion into one, backtracking on its own arguments and setting up false dilemmas.
Bottom Line: The originally stated intent of the film, to expose infringement upon academic freedom, is commendable but Expelled does not accomplish that. The message looses its way amid the holes, hyperbole, and logical fallacies. The talent of the filmmakers is considerable but the structure and integrity of the argument is lacking.
Episode: #187 (April 27, 2008)