Tribeca Movie Review: The Revisionaries (Documentary Competition)

Don McLeroy, D.D.S., in "The Revisionaries"

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Who says that dentists aren’t scary? Oh, sure, the drilling is disturbing enough, but this local Texas D.D.S. is more concerned with filling your head with creationist theories than filling your cavities. Dr. Don McLeroy’s patients may be a captive audience, but ultimately he prefers a larger audience. Such as all Texas schoolchildren, from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

In The Revisionaries (receipient of Tribeca’s Special Jury Mention), first-time documentarian Scott Thurman records the ongoing proceedings in which the fifteen members of the Texas State Board of Education (“SBOE”) discuss, reject, amend and/or rewrite the textbooks that will be approved for use in all of Texas’ public school classrooms for the ensuing ten years. While Thurman gives us fascinating insights into a handful of personalities (both conservative and liberal), he saves his biggest spotlight for McLeroy, a Young Earth Creationist, Evangelical Christian and, in early 2009, acting Chairman of the SBOE. (McLeroy lost his second run at the Chairmanship, but continues to keep his seat on the Board.) As the head, as well as the vociferous representative of the Tea Party, the good dentist pushes his agenda of disputing centuries-old scientific fact. He is aided by fellow board member Cynthia Dunbar, who attempts to discredit Thomas Jefferson (too secular), all the while bemoaning a “Biblically illiterate society.” Separation of church and state? No, sir, not in this Texas ‘hood.

Utilizing the documentarian technique of the silent interviewer, Thurman avoids taking Michael Moore-esque swings. He acts like a gentleman, passively recording … yet, given the subject matter, he can’t help getting his lens somewhat smudged in the process. Even centrist moderates might gasp as the Board’s attempts to combat a “Godless left wing culture” with a wholesale trampling on the First Amendment and disavowal of evolution. Here in the state capitol of Austin, the prior textbooks’ facts and figures are up for debate. Why bother with evolution when creationists can promote such theories as men walking alongside dinosaurs, and the existence of a viable Noah’s Ark, teeming with perfectly sex-appropriate pairs of every last species on God’s green earth?

Cynthia Dunbar in "The Revisionaries"

McLeroy himself seems like a construct, the product of a brilliant actor’s painstaking research in order to successfully actualize a character. His folksy waddle, his false modesty, his sly smile that spreads across his face every time he thinks he’s nailed home some brilliant point (he doesn’t; he fails miserably) – these are elements of a fascinating fictional creation. The fact that he’s a living, breathing human is all the more chilling. He has a worthy cohort in the smug Dunbar, an assistant professor of law at the evangelical Liberty University and author of “One Nation Under God: How the Left is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great.”

Balancing the fervor, attempting to argue with lucid rationale, we get the clear, measured voices of anthropologist Eugenie C. Scott (Director of the National Center for Science Education) and Southern Methodist University professor Ron Wetherington, Ph.D. Speaking out in a far more impassioned manner, Kathy Miller (liberal activist and president of Texas Freedom Network) acts as a kind of narrator amid the noise, pointing out the agendas behind all the forced righteous smiles and polite doubletalk. She is our angry tour guide, frustrated, disgusted and clearly embarrassed by all the ongoing chicanery.

The Revisionaries doesn’t go in for dazzling graphics or cinematic tricks; rather, it’s a straightforward reportage of who’s who, what’s what and the attempt to rewrite the world as per the myopic view of this small yet powerful group of religious zealots. That said, Thurman might have found some ways to enliven the fairly dry documentary. As for structure, some noteworthy concepts are nearly thrown away, e.g., the fact that given the size of Texas and California, textbook publishers primarily cater to these two states (with the less-populated ones falling in line). As Texas goes, so goes the nation? We might very well shudder at the thought, as we see the SBOE de-emphasize other, non-Christian cultures, deny certain genres of music (i.e., hip-hop), and look to promote Cold War McCarthyism.

We’ve seen this sort of revisionist activity before, usually in the guise of syphilitic wack-a-doos, oppressive tsars, and religious tyrants hailing from multiple centuries, wearing all manner of crowns from countries, regions or principalities, often long gone. But wielding untold power today, this very minute, on the youth of America? Some minor dentist holding sway over a school board in Austin, Texas? Nitrous oxide aside, it would be laughable … if it weren’t so damn serious.

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Rating on a scale of 5 eraserheads: 3.5

Directed by: Scott Thurman
Screenplay by: Jawad Metni, Scott Thurman
Featuring: Don McLeroy, Kathy Miller, Cynthia Dunbar, Ron Wetherington, Eugenie C. Scott
Running Time: 83 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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