Revisionaries - SideReel Review
In an age when all political discourse seems to consist solely of people yelling from the furthest extremes of every position, the most difficult task isn’t to express a genuinely moderate point of view, but to express a contentious point of view in such a way that reasonable people can hear you. Scott Thurman’s advocacy documentary The Revisionaries manages to do exactly that.
The movie examines how the Texas State Board of Education, a political body consisting of elected members, votes every ten years on the standards that all textbooks in the state must adhere to. Thurman’s cameras capture the public-debate sessions held by the board at a time when it’s overseen by a religious and political conservative who seeks to introduce concepts such as intelligent design into the science curriculum. He has avid supporters, as well as ardent enemies, and Thurman engages viewers by explaining early on how this affects the entire country, not just the Lone Star State.
Since Texas is one of the largest customers of textbooks in the U.S., the publishers of those books must alter the content of their products for the state to be able to buy them. So, it turns out that what this elected body decides pretty much dictates what is taught in high schools all across America.
Thurman centers the film on dentist and politician Don McLeroy, a conservative Christian so committed to his beliefs that we glimpse him talking about issues regarding both church and state to patients as he works on their teeth. He’s the chairman of the State Board of Education, and he plans on using his power and influence to have intelligent design taught alongside evolution in science classes. He has allies on the board, but there are also passionate detractors who oppose his efforts, including Southern Methodist University anthropology professor Ron Wetherington, who testifies passionately before the group about how McLeroy’s plan actually harms students.
What makes The Revisionaries such a gripping experience is that the director has footage from these public hearings, in which experts express their opinions before the elected officials and the members of the board squabble amongst themselves. It’s a sickening, infuriating portrait of the sausage-making process that is 21st century American politics.
Just when this heated battle over who gets to determine what can be called "science" comes to an end, the whole debate starts again with even more amplified rhetoric as the board then turns its attention to the question of history. Again, Thurman’s film gives us fly-on-the-wall access to how a lack of communication -- and a self-serving belief in what’s right -- leads to a process in which even people directly involved despair at what -- if anything -- they’ve accomplished.
Those who dismiss The Revisionaries as little more than a Michael Moore knockoff will miss why Thurman’s film is such essential viewing. While the movie makes no bones about where it stands on the issues being debated, it doesn’t reveal why you should hold a particular position. Instead, it presents viewers an unfiltered view of everything that we shouldn’t want our government and our democracy to be. It’s a film that strives for reason by showing the inevitable downside of behaving unreasonably.