In the Beginning” is an apt enough title for this ponderous immersion into the still-raging monkey business over creationism vs. evolution. It has a beginning. It has an end. But what it mostly has is a meandering middle that needs prudent — and dramatic — natural selection.
Somewhere inside this bloated and inert two-parter something interesting tries desperately to break free, but it’s no match for the academically bland treatment it suffers under co-writer and host Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College and the author of a biography of Billy Graham.
The material screams out for a shape it’s never given. More than that, it aches for an attitude — say, that of a Jonathan Swift, or maybe the viewpoint of an American gadfly, like Mark Twain.
“Beginning” glosses over the roots of the controversy over theories of evolution — the loud and public rise of fundamentalism in the U.S. in the late 1970s, and the political clout and organization at the grassroots level of the evangelical right — then fast-forwards to the current heat over “scientific creationism.”
An attempt to somehow blend biblical fact with scientific methodology, “scientific creationism”– with its beliefs that the universe is about 10,000 years old, that man and dinosaur lived together and that the flood recounted in Genesis was the cataclysmic event that changed the geologic and biological nature of the Earth — is labeled fraud by the scientific community, which considers it a theory built on suppositions rather than evidence.
Indeed, as one scientist makes clear, science and religion don’t easily mesh: The former is based on doubt, the latter on belief.
This is the kind of stuff from which a riveting documentary can be made, but “Beginning” opts to straddle the fence; it makes few judgments. It even-handedly introduces proponents of creationism and Darwinism and then just lets them talk in a series of interviews that are as slow and methodical as man’s own rise from his four-legged ancestors.
The docu delves into fascinating territory: The power of religion and its influence over the state in a system in which church and state are supposed to be separate. For example, Balmer shows us the havoc wreaked in Vista when fundamentalists took over the school board and tried to institute curriculum changes.
In the end, though, even a powerful premise can’t help “Beginning” evolve into a satisfying documentary. At least the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest leaves room — and hope — for a more challenging and professional raid on this arena in the future.