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Revisionaries, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/14/12 07:35:43

"A look at how ideology enters the curriculum - with its own agenda."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2012: It's easy to hear a phrase like "culture wars" and think that it's over-stating the matter; most people, most of the time, stick to their own thing, grouse that there's not more that reflects their beliefs and tastes, and leave it at that. But as "The Revisionaries" demonstrates, it's a very real thing, and one of the front lines is the Texas State Board of Education.

This is because the group decides on the standards that textbooks must meet in order to be used by a large population, and since publishers aren't looking to publish multiple editions, this can impact the education of children well outside their borders. As the film starts, in early 2009, the board is attempting to decide the language to be used when discussing the theory of evolution. The focus soon comes to rest upon Don McLeroy, the head of the Board, who is not an educator but a dentist, and a young-Earth creationist at that. He and fellow conservatives like Cynthia Dunbar (who is a professor at Liberty University as well as a board member) are one side of the fight, while the other side is mostly represented by lobbyists like Kathy Miller (Texas Freedom Network) and Eugenie Scott (National Center for Science Education) and witnesses like anthropology professor Ron Wetherington. McLeroy will also soon be facing a re-election campaign.

That director Scott Thurman chooses to focus on McLeroy is kind of unusual; it's fair to say that the film's sympathies lie with McLeroy's opponents, and the usual technique is to follow the heroic underdog. Then again, the "antagonist" in a documentary is seldom as gregarious and willing to grant access as this guy. There's nothing obviously shifty or deceptive about the guy, and that may be why he's so willing to have Thurman's cameras follow him - he genuinely feels that he has nothing to hide, and is so certain of his convictions that he can't understand why his opponents are so mean to him.

And yet, as friendly and plain-spoken as McLeroy is, and how odd or even absurd some of their actions may seem, it would be a mistake to not take him and his ilk seriously, and Thurman does a pretty good job of showing why: Dogged determination can count for a lot, and it forces a somewhat unusual structure onto the movie. There are plenty of moments that look like they should be climactic, big moments when the tide would turn, but because people just keep on going, it can take on the feel of a liberal's horror movie, with an implacable opponent that won't go down no matter how many blows it takes. The strongest example perhaps comes from McLeroy, who memorably gets flustered and blurts out that "somebody has to stand up to experts!", and as damning and ridiculous as it sounds at the moment, he's using it in speeches later as a point of pride.

Moments like that make it seem like it's hard to go too far, and there are moments when truth does seem stranger than fiction. It almost seems like Thurman is overplaying his hand at times, with two clips of the committee opening their meeting on how separate ideology from education with prayers and banjo music playing in the background when Don appears. He does a nice job of livening up what could be fairly dry material by conducting many of his interviews on-location while events are unfolding rather than in bland offices afterward, although his attempts to make the movie entertaining to watch may bury certain important but easy-to-miss bits.

Like most political documentaries, "The Revisionaries" will probably play best to those who don't need their opinions swayed in its direction (although, per the Q&A with Thurman afterward, McLeroy liked it too). Even among that audience, though, it may be valuable for focusing their attention on the particular issue and doing so in an entertaining way.

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