Suggesting a strangled, Edvard Munch-evoking scream, “The Revisionaries” does all it can to maintain an objective perspective on the Texas textbook battle — the ongoing crusade by creationists to rewrite science, history and education itself — but always stays one unsteady step away from hysteria. The urgency of the docu’s message and its proximity to the upcoming presidential election should put it on the theatrical curriculum, although a blue-state/red-state division should be expected, particularly given how deftly helmer Scott Thurman lets his fundamentalist subjects bury themselves in dopiness and double-talk.
“Someone has to stand up to these experts,” Texas State Board of Education chairman Don McLeroy all but sputters, as he and other right-leaning board members dismiss the testimony of scientists, academics and even those without an evident agenda, while consistently denying they have one of their own. McLeroy, an amiable dentist, is an avowed young-earth creationist who believes the world is only 6,000 years old. His most vocal ally, Cynthia Dunbar, a product of Pat Robertson’s and Jerry Falwell’s institutions of higher learning, teaches law at Liberty U., speaks at fundamentalist Christian rallies and is an acknowledged voice against the evils of secular humanism. The other board members are essentially feckless, although their feet are kept to the fire by the likes of Kathy Miller, the head of the liberal Texas Freedom Network, and Ron Wetherington, an anthropologist at Southern Methodist U., who does so much weary head-shaking he probably needs a neck brace.
Texas is a principal battleground in the creationists-vs.-evolutionists debate because textbook publishers don’t want to mess with such a huge market for their wares, giving the state’s decision national implications. What the film asks is whether people like Dunbar, with her very obvious strategy, or McLeroy, who visibly struggles to keep contradictory arguments in his head at the same time, should be deciding the fate of U.S. education. At a time when American students are already seen as trailing their international counterparts, the Texas “revisionaries” are intent on subjecting them not just to inferior learning but to ridicule. “The Revisionaries” doesn’t preach, but it doesn’t need to in order to make its major point.
Thurman bends over backward to maintain something resembling objectivity, and religious belief is never ridiculed. But McLeroy and Co.’s insistence that you can’t prove evolution by showing the missing links between fossil species is illogical enough to invite critique; Thurman’s struggle here involves reconciling one way of thinking (science, based on evidence) with another (religion, based on faith).
The film’s most troubling moments occur not in the sequences concerning science text but in those concerning social studies, including what became a much-publicized 2010 excision of Thomas Jefferson from one book because of his contempt for organized religion (Dunbar insisted that his words be replaced with those of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone). “The Revisionaries” is something of a horror story for those who think a respect for ignorance is becoming institutionalized by certain political parties and forces that encourage a contempt for knowledge. Thurman’s docu is a cautionary tale, but not for Texas, where the battle seems already to be lost.
Production values are tops, particularly the lensing by Thurman and Zac Sprague, capturing not only the colorful debate on the board but the often bewildered reactions elsewhere. Jawad Metni’s editing is also tops.