Creationists and scientists repeatedly clash in a fascinating war of the words throughout “The Revisonaries,” Scott Thurman’s enthralling look at the resistance to the theory of evolution among prominent members of the Texas Board of Education. While turning to former head board-member and Young Earth Creationist Don McLeroy as his main subject, Thurman nevertheless utilizes a remarkably even-handed approach, but his portrait contains enough fiery debates to let viewers pick their sides.
For those in agreement with McLeroy’s deeply religious perspective on the (very, very brief) history of the world, the cheery southerner maintains a valiant quest to maintain reverence for the Bible in the classroom. Others will sit alternately mesmerized, amused and horrified at his endorsement of biblical theories over hard fact, including the assertion that dinosaurs rode Noah’s Ark. That particular line of argument would baffle many people, but “The Revisionaries” boils down the reaction to a single point of view that belongs to Ron Wetherington, an SMU anthropology professor who serves as McLeroy’s chief opposition.
Indeed, everyone in the movie symbolizes a specific line of argument. Mainly set in endlessly chatty board meetings, “The Revisionaries” focuses on the period every 10 years in which the board meets to consider potential revisions to the state textbooks. The squabbling ranges from profound discourse on the nature of scientific inquiry to absurd tangents (whether or not a textbook reference to “hip hop” should be changed to “country music”). The frequent cutaways to board members and the various scholars and other researchers testifying about potential changes highlight the impossibility of consensus, while McLeroy’s routine insistence that he separates his personal views from his job reeks of dubiousness.
For anyone interested in scientific progress, McLeroy is a charming naif with a menacing agenda, but then he’s not alone his convictions (Thurman repeatedly shows board meetings opening with prayer sessions). “This is a microcosm of the real world,” someone says about the ongoing debate. Indeed, because “The Revisionaries” uses people in a representative manner, one could easily imagine a popular television series based around its chief characters: A scene in which McLeroy visits the home of anthropology professor Weatherington, and the two earnestly attempt to get along while ending each nicety with a disclaimer, walks a fine line between comedic inspiration and utter uneasiness.
An affable dentist when he’s not sitting in the Austin capital building, McLeroy makes a compelling centerpiece to the movie’s concerns. “Somebody’s gotta stand up to the experts,” he says on more than one occasion, one of his many edicts sure to encourage face-planting from secular contingencies and anyone else interested in a more open-minded approach to education. Fortunately, McLeroy faces opposition from multiple directions, including the trenchant Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network and the more centrist Thomas Ratliff, who challenges McLeroy’s post.
“The Revisionaries” pulls off the extraordinary trick of distinguishing between McLeroy the man and McLeroy the pundit: McLeroy the man is a good-natured Christian whose inability to find peace with his crusade makes him a figure of sympathy. But McLeroy the pundit is a near-grotesque caricature of Christianity’s stranglehold on the American right. As the boardmember falls out of favor, it’s easy to feel bad for him while marveling at his complete ineptitude in preventing his personal beliefs from having an impact on the educational system.
First-time director Thurman avoids the trappings of didactic filmmaking by rooting his issue-driven movie in entertaining personalities and an engaging visual style that contrasts lovely images of Texas nature with the darker qualities of the feuds at hand. Despite the regional nature of the movie, the conversations threaded throughout the movie echo larger divisions in society, allowing “The Revisionaries” to address vast educational concerns with a broad philosophical scope. Thurman structures his story with an eye for its topicality: While McLeroy no longer sits on the board, neither he nor others like him have given up their cause; with seats open for reelection this November, the battle is just getting started.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With its nimble ability to play differently depending on the bias of its audience, “The Revisionists” is sure to generate continuing dialogue along the festival circuit and land a decent reception in limited theatrical release.