Scott Thurman's documentary The Revisionaries focuses in, for our amusement and enlightenment, on one more episode of the United States' seemingly endless "culture wars," the vying for political and cultural power at every level between those convinced that the U.S. is a "Christian nation" and those who take a more pluralistic/egalitarian view. It's a microcosm of something that's been going on for decades all over the country, which is ostensibly its relevance to all of us, not just the red state (Texas) where it documents a heated debate going down over public-school textbook standards; the terms employed in that debate, the arguments raised and rebutted and counter-rebutted, the oil-and-water personal values at head-butting odds and the accompanying emotional dimension to the affair, will be queasily familiar to anyone who reads a newspaper or (god forbid) exposes themselves to the toxic 24/7 cable "news" cycle. Thurman had his camera eye on everything that went down in Austin regarding the matter over the couple of years that the religious right staged an aggressive takeover of the State Board of Education (SBOE), missing scarcely a single detail of the clashes of personality and ideology that occur as what's taught in Texas public schools gets picked over and mangled along what the belligerent newcomers obviously see as conservative/liberal ideological lines (factuality and accurate historicity are bluntly not their priority). It's in strongly and decisively making the all-important connections between the fascinating personalities we get to know and are allowed to see sniping and speechifying at the SBOE meetings in Austin, and the national trend and much larger-scale political agenda exemplified therein, that the film's achievement becomes iffier.
There is no denying the star quality of The Revisionaries's cast of SBOE infiltrators (villains if you're for separation of church and state, heroes if you're a "Christian nation" adherent), particularly Don McLeroy, the evangelical-Christian dentist at the center of the two successive waves of textbook revisionism, in 2009 and 2010, that the film documents. When we meet him, McLeroy has somehow gotten himself elected chairman of the SBOE, whose meetings he conducts in an even-handed way as the board debates whether to emphasize the "weaknesses" of evolutionary science in beginning biology/anthropology textbooks designed for junior-high and high-school students. The manner in which McLeroy and his more sophisticated-appearing counterpart, Cynthia Dunbar (commuting from her faculty position at Lynchburg, Virginia's notoriously, aggressively ultraconservative Christian college, Liberty University) gun for these changes is positively Orwellian -- an open and brutal violation of the spirit of the law prohibiting advocacy of one religion's point of view in a public classroom (both Dunbar and McLeroy openly put religion first, whether the matter at hand is public or private), peppered with jaw-dropping disingenuousness about perhaps not violating the letter of that law ("intelligent design" not being, in and of itself, an explicitly biblical term, etc., etc., yadda yadda). In the next cycle, McLeroy has been demoted from his position as chairman for politicizing the process, but he and Dunbar are still going strong, this time butchering social-studies textbook standards to reflect, sometimes in hilariously minute ways, a thick neoconservative filter on people and events, whether they're introducing amendments to put St. Thomas Aquinas on par with Voltaire as a political thinker, eliminating references to women's and minorities' grievances throughout American history, or (my favorite) replacing "hip-hop" with "country" in reference to popular music styles.
The parade of nonchalant ridiculousness (Dunbar's PhD-level pseudo-sophistication less so than McLeroy's guileless density, but still, she can't pronounce Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the shakiness of knowledge behind her articulate public-speaking skills is visible a mile way; she's Newt Gingrich, and I only wished Joan Didion had been on hand for her performance, too) is addictive; the film's running time flies by, the freak-show proceedings at the SBOE meetings rounded out by a sort of equal-time principle admirably adhered to by Thurman, so that we also hear the voices of the more rational players -- Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network, whose work is to put the brakes on the anti-science, history-redacting agenda represented by McLeroy and Dunbar; Southern Methodist University anthropology professor Ron Wetherington, who manages to become dinner-sharing friends with McLeroy despite his outspoken scientific dismay at the righties' sneaky anti-evolution maneuvers; and Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education -- with particular focus on Miller, an appealing local mom whom McLeroy petulantly (and, again, rather disingenuously) speaks of as some sort of nefarious, harsh, mean-spirited arch-enemy, which we can clearly see is not the case, however incisive her criticisms of his attempts to impose his religious beliefs on public schoolchildren.
But there's the rub: Nothing Miller can say, in her intelligently down-to-earth and reasonable way, and not even Thurman and company's careful organization and research into/effective mini-expositions of Texas's deep history as a culture-war battleground happy to theocratically blur those church-state lines, can stick in the mind like the cartoonish doings of Mr. Don McLeroy. This man's clear sincerity when it comes to his faith is matched only by just how unhinged he is; each and every patient who comes in to get a teeth cleaning or a filling is subjected to a humble, rootsy earful about young-earth creationism and soulless secular humanism, McLeroy and his assistant having a good laugh all the while because the dentist's clueless victim, mouth full of dental tools and bite blocks, is physically incapable of talking back. McLeroy's petty, self-pitying competitiveness in political matters is worn on the sleeve; his frequently-expressed anger toward what he sees as some sort of conspiratorial tyranny of "experts" -- people who have extensively studied and devoted their careers and lives to certain fields and types of knowledge -- is a perfect snapshot of the resentful longing for a non-existent monolithic tradition/simplicity that drives so much conservative feeling (or "thought," if you must). McLeroy and Dunbar both seem perpetually keyed up and on the verge of tears (the floodgates actually do open for National Day of Prayer speeches and recountings of when one was born again; when it comes to rejecting rationality and deferring to all-important, overriding faith and feeling, at least they're consistent. Thurman is hardly out to get any of his subjects; he's as respectful and fair as anyone could hope for. It's just that this Forrest Gump-like personality is evidently how McLeroy actually is, and it's compulsively, shamefully watchable.
Unfortunately, it's a trap, and one that this well-intentioned and overall well-made films falls at least a good halfway into. Whether we're spending screen time with McLeroy and Wetherington being friendly over dinner at the professor's house (as if to say they're just folks, ferociously opposed ethics, worldviews, and conceptions of public life and how it should be played out reassuringly, if falsely, set off to the side) or marvelling at McLeroy's antics and self-image as a "skeptic" despite his purposely unskeptical adherence to a biblical literalism even a great many Christians can't knowingly settle for, the film becomes, quite in spite of itself, a personality-driven story that trivializes the danger that McLeroy and Dunbar -- pawns in a much bigger, extremely serious game with real American freedom from state religion at stake -- represent. The laugh-out-loud foibles (along with the carefully respected humanity) of affably crazy Don McLeroy are bound to steal focus, in much the same way it was so much easier (facile, even) to endlessly make fun of the second President Bush's happy-ignoramus persona, thereby avoiding the effortful despondency of actually thinking about his abysmal policies and his very real power to implement them. The Revisionaries does have some real information and enlightenment to offer, but it seems it's the nature of the documentary beast (this kind of storytelling documentary, anyway) that it would, sooner or later, veer precariously toward fluff, leaving us laughing and shaking our heads in enjoyment, but also with the niggling, growing suspicion that we shouldn't be so amused and entertained by all this, the feeling that maybe we would've been better off and had a deeper and more effectual experience if we'd read a book, done some research, or otherwise more diligently restricted ourselves to the facts instead.
The transfer, presenting the film anamorphically at the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, is good to excellent; the different video textures in the film -- from the bright, crisp, clear, and vivid colors of Thurman's and Zac Sprague's high-def digital-video photography to on-the-fly, lower-grade video from some of the SBOE meetings and TV news footage -- all appear as they should, with the only flaw being a splash here and there of edge enhancement and haloing.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtrack easily conveys, with immediate, full presence and no distortion or imbalance, all nuances of the surprisingly well-recorded/mixed, clear documentary/interview sound from the shoot as well as the naturally thinner/tinnier sound of archival stuff.
Just the film's theatrical trailer.
Scott Thurman's The Revisionaries uses a local episode -- the 2009-2010 Texas State Board of Education's (SBOE) setting of textbook standards -- to point up the larger, long-running, national public and private "culture wars" between those who view themselves as religious traditionalists and those dedicated to that true American tradition, separation of church and state. It's a vital topic, and Thurman doesn't miss a beat of the often "can you believe they said/claimed/did that?"-eliciting right-wing extremism on display in the SBOE meeting rooms. However -- and this is despite the laudable high ambitions and demonstrable technical and narrative skills of the filmmaker -- it's at least as much an unintentional study in the deeper, more effective strategy of the trash-media-savvy right wing (and, dishearteningly, much of the entire two-party American political spectrum): charisma and sensationalism. Thurman gives a respectful and thorough hearing to the various sides of the issue; he lets the rational, sensible people speak for themselves just the same as the more, er, "colorful" characters who think that pluralism, along with hard-earned knowledge and expertise, are the tyrannical enemy to be beaten. It's as disappointing for the film -- which does have a head on its shoulders, and which does mean to intelligently explore a real problem -- as it is for our technologically and audiovisually-predicated political-discourse "show" that you can cut back and forth just as conscientiously as you like between the theocratically-minded right-wingers and the thoughtful, well-spoken scientists, educators, and concerned citizens, but what'll be left ringing in your eyes and ears in the end, regardless of your political persuasion or underlying personal convictions, is the astoundingly cheerful, willful ignorance and bluster of the retrogressive anti-rationalists, and the feeling that a solid, intelligent, well-meaning doc like The Revisionaries is stuck in a losing battle, not in the "culture wars" between progressives and foot-draggers, but on the more insidious turf between real information/true provocation of thought on the one hand, and on the other entertainment value, which seems to have the winning edge every time. Reservedly recommended.