Review: The Revisionaries


The Revisionaries

The Revisionaries is yet another documentary I find difficult to review. Like last year's gripping Incendiary: The Willingham Case, The Revisionaries is so politically charged -- and so completely infuriating -- that it's hard to set aside my political beliefs and objectively review the film's cinematic qualities.

I'll do my best to be objective, but I'm sure my political views will sneak into this review at some point. Don't say I didn't warn you.

The Revisionaries takes a generally painful look at the Texas State Board of Education, long notorious as a haven for extremely conservative Christians whose mission is to rewrite textbooks to reflect their beliefs in creationism, America's Biblical origins, sexual abstinence, unregulated free enterprise and so on. A clever lot they are, hoping to win the culture wars over the long term by influencing what children learn in classrooms throughout Texas.

The film takes us to countless board meetings, during which the conservatives try to plant seeds of doubt about evolution into biology textbooks. In social studies textbooks, they try to downplay or eliminate references to historical and public figures whose views they disagree with. (Among other things, they also attempt to insert "Hussein" into Barack Obama's name.)

The Revisionaries centers on board member Don McLeroy, a Bryan, Texas dentist who believes the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, evolution is a lie, and humans and dinosaurs once walked the Earth together. Governor Rick Perry appointed McLeroy chairman of the board in 2007; The Revisionaries opens during a hearing on McLeroy's 2009 reappointment, which Democrats in the Texas Legislature blocked on grounds that McLeroy was far too partisan to lead the board effectively. But by then, the good Christian dentist and his cohorts already had accomplished much of their agenda.

McLeroy does not come across sympathetically, but The Revisionaries does present him as entirely sincere -- he's less a politician than a devoutly religious man who truly believes he's helping Texas schoolchildren. The film also explores his surprisingly cordial relationships with some of his most ardent opponents; this is probably the most interesting aspect of The Revisionaries, which otherwise is a rather dry look at the workings of Texas government.

And dry it is. The State Board of Education's assault on science and secularism is a compelling story, but The Revisionaries isn't a terribly compelling film, at least artistically. It consists largely of talking heads and footage of board meetings. The glimpses into McLeroy's personal life (and the lives of other figures involved in the controversy) are somewhat interesting, as is the narrative arc involving McLeroy's 2010 re-election campaign. But The Revisionaries lacks any real spark or originality. It's a low-key, straightforward, mostly superficial look at a subject that begs for a far deeper and more creative treatment.

On the other hand, the filmmakers may have been trying to stay out of the way, assuming that the board's machinations are plenty riveting on their own without much cinematic embellishment. If The Revisionaries is more about polemics than art, it certainly succeeds; it's guaranteed to raise the ire of anyone who believes in the separation of church and state. McLeroy's comments -- and those of another breathtakingly reactionary board member, Cynthia Dunbar -- are completely outrageous (or at least would be in any context other than Texas politics). The Revisionaries may not be great cinema, but it is a powerful call to arms in the battle to keep religious ideology out of our schools.

Although I can't recommend The Revisionaries to fans of top-tier documentary filmmaking, I can recommend it to anyone who follows Texas politics and culture. It offers plenty of State Board of Education-related facts and figures, and fleshes out some of the personalities behind the never-ending controversy. (For example, Dr. McLeroy sings Christian songs while filling cavities. I think I'll stick with my current dentist, thank you.)

Austin/Texas connections: The Revisionaries was filmed in Austin, Bryan, and other Texas locations. Director and co-writer Scott Thurman is from Lubbock and studied documentary filmmaking at the University of North Texas.